Forget Facial Expressions and Reputation: 3 Surprising Rules to Sharpen Your Trust Instincts

Updated: Aug. 20, 2019

Here are the real factors to focus on to determine the trustworthy people in your life.

october 2015 trust instinctsMichael Cogliantry/Getty ImagesResidents of Gulfport, Mississippi, will never forget August 29, 2005. Hurricane Katrina battered their city with 16 hours of winds and ocean surges that exceeded 28 feet.

After the storm calmed, residents set their sights on rebuilding. But with electricity unlikely to be restored soon, access to money was frozen. Whether you had $100 or $100,000 in the bank didn’t matter; you couldn’t get to it.

The CEOs of Hancock Bank, a local financial institution, made a surprising decision. They would jump-start commerce using a basic strategy: trust. Hancock’s leaders decided to trust that people whom they allowed to withdraw money would pay it back. Bank employees set up folding tables around the community and gave up to $200 to anyone who wrote his or her name, address, and Social Security number on a scrap of paper. Hancock released more than $40 million, and all but $200,000—about one half of 1 percent of the amount distributed—was returned. Hancock gained thousands of customers and increased its assets by more than 20 percent.

From contracts with banks and marital vows to daily interactions with our family, friends, and colleagues, trust pervades almost every aspect of our lives. We think we know what trust means (keeping your word) and looks like (beware shifty eyes), but after conducting and reading hundreds of studies, I’ve observed that it’s much more nuanced than you think, and many of our longtime assumptions can be way off. Consider these principles to avoid being vulnerable and make smarter decisions.

Trust is important. So we conducted a survey to find out which brands American’s trust the most. Meet the heroes of the Trusted League, these are the most trusted brands in America.

1. Watch Out for Power Plays

We like to think we can predict trustworthiness on the basis of reputation, but decades of research show it’s not the case. People are shocked by this. They’ll note that their uncle Ben has always been honest or, on the other hand, is someone you wouldn’t trust with your money. If this is true, it’s because our lives usually don’t change much from day to day. But if monetary rewards are tempting enough or if a change in status makes you more powerful, your trustworthiness is susceptible—no matter who you are.

Dana Carney of the Haas School of Business in Berkeley, California, has demonstrated that increases in power make people better liars. Participants played roles in a fake business. “Bosses” had bigger offices than “workers,” got to assign workers salaries, and so forth. Half of participants (both “bosses” and “workers”) were instructed to steal a $100 bill. Those told to steal could keep the money if they could convince the experiment runner that they didn’t take it. (That person didn’t know who was assigned to steal and who wasn’t.)

Thieves with little power—the “workers”—were more often pegged as deceitful than the high-powered “boss” thieves. A slight change in status empowered the “bosses” to be self-serving liars.

Consider the impact of larger, longer-lasting changes in money or power. If your spouse lands a big client or a childhood pal comes into family money, it could affect how each person treats you. With increasing money and power comes the belief that you don’t depend as much on others; as a result, it becomes easier to treat people unfairly.

But before you judge the rich too quickly, realize that you don’t have to land a big raise to be corrupted a little. Simply being in close proximity to money—say, at a casino—can increase dishonesty, research shows. Being physically close to cash makes you feel as if you have plenty of resources, which can make you favor short-term, self-centered behaviors (making big bets at the craps table) while ignoring repercussions (risking savings for your kitchen renovation).

To demonstrate this, Harvard economist Francesca Gino had study participants self-grade a work sheet, then take earnings from a pile of cash on a nearby table. (They were told to take $3 for each correct answer—the study ran on the honor system.) For one group, a few hundred dollars sat on the table; for the other, more than $7,000. Guess who cheated more. As Gino predicted, the presence of the extra cash increased cheating in the latter group.

2. Listen to Your Intuition

There’s a long history in psychology of believing that specific expressions or gestures provide unambiguous cues about a person’s motivations or feelings. A smile means someone likes you. A furrowed brow means a person is angry. But we now know that isolated gestures and expressions aren’t reliable indicators. What’s more, overanalyzing such nonverbal behavior can get in the way of our innate trust detectors.

With a team of scientists from Cornell and MIT, I videotaped pairs of people playing a gambling game to study all the possible combinations of behaviors that might influence decisions to trust or not trust. Over several months, a small army of trained coders translated participants’ actions into entries in a database.

After much investigation, we identified a set of four individual cues that—when taken together—strongly predicted how trustworthy a person would be: crossing arms, leaning away, face touching, and hand touching. The more frequently anyone engaged in all these behaviors, the less trustworthy he or she was in the gambling game.

Here’s where intuition comes in: The more often partners showed these cues, the less trust others placed in them. Even more interesting: No one could pinpoint which specific behaviors a partner exhibited that led him or her to guess the partner would be untrustworthy—participants just “sensed” it. In other words, we’re born with an instinct to subconsciously assess these traits and determine whom to trust.

The takeaway? If we listen to our gut, we can adjust on the basis of other information if needed (e.g., a change in someone’s power status).

3. Use Emotions to Stay Honest

You’re not as trustworthy as you think. Neither am I. I know because we ask everyday folks in our lab studies if they consider themselves honest. Almost everyone says yes, but his or her behaviors don’t sync up. We described this scenario: You’d be alone in a room with a coin to flip and had to write down whether it showed heads or tails. Heads meant you’d play a fun video game; tails meant you’d be forced to complete 45 minutes of boring work. A person in the next room would get the outcome you didn’t.

A full 100 percent of people said that failing to flip the coin or lying about the outcome was wrong. Yet when we secretly videotaped people, 90 percent of them did not flip the coin—they wrote the outcome they wanted. (Well, that’s not entirely true. Some did continually flip the coin until they got the desired result.)

When 100 percent of people say that something is wrong but then 90 percent of them do it, something isn’t right. In studies like this and myriad others, people knew how they should act, yet cheat they did, sometimes even surprising themselves.

Part of the problem is our ability to rationalize bad behavior. If you deal with a dishonest contractor, you can just not hire him again. If a longtime friend betrays, you can ignore her calls. But if you suspect that you can’t be trusted, there’s not much you can do to avoid yourself—which is why our minds are wired to always perceive ourselves as virtuous. Enter the art of excuse making. The cheaters in the coin experiment tended to offer justifications like “I’m sure the next person isn’t as swamped.”

Research shows there is a powerful antidote to these attempts to rationalize away our vices. When we prevented participants from justifying their behavior after the coin experiment, they condemned themselves as readily as they judged others. Their feelings of shame helped them recognize that what they had done was wrong.

When we’re faced with an opportunity to be dishonest, we often feel an initial pang of guilt, but if we suspect no one will be the wiser, our minds push us to cheat and then make an excuse for it so we don’t see ourselves as untrustworthy. This habituates us to favor immediate rewards over long-term benefits—the same choices we might weigh when forced to consider the advantages of, say, a stable marriage over a short-term affair.

Recognizing feelings of shame and guilt—instead of brushing them aside—can give us the opportunity to resist the fling in the moment. Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and listen to what your emotions might be telling you.

At the other end of the spectrum, positive emotions like compassion and gratitude appear to nudge our moral compass in the right direction. In one study, we manipulated people’s emotional states before they played a gambling game so that some participants felt grateful. Those who were in an appreciative state of mind acted more trustworthily in the game.

So what’s the right way to trust? Tune in to guilt and gratitude to enhance your reliability. Follow your instincts as to whether others are truthful—our minds can read signals of trust of which we’re not consciously aware. Pay extra attention if someone has recently come into money or gotten a promotion. These minor, everyday actions and judgments won’t make the world a utopia, but they can push us in the right direction. Trust me.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest