The Trust Gap

Christine Whelan | Posted on 03/31/10

We just don't have enough practice trusting people because we're stuck in a vicious cycle of cynicism.

Interesting piece on PsychCentral today about the "trust gap" in America: In lab settings and in opinion polls, we tend to report thinking that other people are less trustworthy than we are. But a recent study in Psychological Science suggests that we just don't have enough practice trusting people because we're stuck in a vicious cycle of cynicism.

Write authors Fetchenhauer and Dunning of their study:

Participants saw short videos of other people and had to decide whether to trust each person in an economic game. Participants overall underestimated the trustworthiness of the people they viewed, regardless of whether they were given financial incentives to provide accurate estimates. However, people who received symmetric feedback about the trustworthiness of others (i.e., who received feedback regardless of their own decision to trust) exhibited reduced cynicism relative to those who received no feedback or asymmetric feedback (i.e., who received feedback only after they trusted the other person).

Bottom line: When people are shown the trust of others, their trust increases. So show some trust to others, and they are more likely to behave in a kind and trusting way toward you.

While this is interesting, there's a wide and varied sociological literature on trust... and a lot of smart people will jump on these findings with important caveats:

  • Trust tends to depend on an individual's place in society: Those with higher social status tend to be more trusting than those with lower social status. (Life has been better to those on the top, the thinking goes, and fewer folks have done them wrong.)
  • Demographics matter: Those who are married tend to be more trusting than those who aren't. People who live in rural areas are more trusting than folks who live in cities.
  • Might generation matter, too? The definition of trust and honesty, especially for young-adults, is perhaps different from what older Americans might think of as trustworthy and honest behavior. My Millennial college students define honesty as being bluntly truthful, regardless of whether it hurts someone else's feelings. Being nice to be polite? Students thought of that as dishonest brown-nosing. This in-your-face attitude might not be so conducive to trusting someone with personal feelings and sensitive information.

Of course, you can consider whether trust me on any of this.

Oooh.

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