Issues of trust come attached to almost every human interaction, yet few people realize how powerfully their ability to determine trustworthiness predicts future success. David DeSteno’s cutting-edge research on reading trust cues with humanoid robots has already excited widespread media interest. In The Truth About Trust, the renowned psychologist shares his findings and debunks numerous popular beliefs.
Can I trust you?
This question—this set of four simple words—often occupies our minds to a degree few other concerns can. It’s a question on which we exert a lot of mental effort—often without our even knowing it—as its answers have the potential to influence almost everything we do. Unlike many other puzzles we confront, questions of trust don’t just involve attempting to grasp and analyze a perplexing concept. They all share another characteristic: risk.
So while it’s true that we turn our attention to many complex problems throughout our lives, finding the answers to most doesn’t usually involve navigating the treacherous landscape of our own and others’ competing desires.
Trust implies a seeming unknowable—a bet of sorts, if you will.
At its base is a delicate problem centered on the balance between two dynamic and often opposing desires—a desire for someone else to meet your needs and his desire to meet his own.
Whether a child can trust her parents’ answer to her question about the color of the sky requires estimating not only their scientific bona fides, but also their desire to appear smart even if they really don’t know the answer. Whether she can trust them to make pizza for dinner, rather than simply ask why she can’t have it every night, relies on divining her parents’ willingness to uphold their promise to cook in the face of sudden needs to work late or to take an extra trip to the grocery store to refill an empty pantry.
Whether you can trust scientists to tell you why searching for the Higgs or related subatomic particles is worth the huge taxpayer expense, rather than ask them to simply provide a definition for what the little particle is, means pitting everyone’s desire to acquire knowledge that can lead to a better world against the scientists’ related desires to pad their research budgets.
The same logic even applies to trusting yourself. Think about it. Whether you can trust that you’ll invest your next paycheck for the long term as opposed to spending it immediately to purchase the newest iPad is quite different from figuring out how much money you’ll have in twenty years if you do choose to invest it. Whether we’re talking about money, fidelity, social support, business dealings, or secret-keeping, trust isn’t just about the facts. It’s about trying to predict what someone will do based on competing interests and capabilities. In short, it’s about gambling on your ability to read someone’s mind, even if that someone is your future self.
Like all gambles, though, assessing trustworthiness is an imperfect endeavor; there’s always a chance you’re going to come up short.
If the need to trust is so central to humans, why is it so difficult to figure out who is worthy of it? Why after millennia of evolutionary development and decades of scientific inquiry are answers only beginning to emerge?
To my mind, there are two good reasons.
The first, as I’ve hinted, is that unlike many forms of communication, issues of trust are often characterized by a competition or battle. As we’ll see, it’s not always an adaptive strategy to be an open book to others, or even to ourselves. Consequently, trying to discern if someone can be trusted is fundamentally different from trying to assess characteristics like mathematical ability. Aptitude in math can be estimated from answers to specific types of problems. Unless the person is a genius trying to pull the wool over your eyes, there shouldn’t be any competing interests pushing her answers one way or another. As a result, her answers should, on average, serve as accurate indicators of her true abilities and be solid predictors of how she’ll perform in the future. With trust, neither of these facts is necessarily true. As we’ll see throughout this book, deciding to be trustworthy depends on the momentary balance between competing mental forces pushing us in opposite directions, and being able to predict which of those forces is going to prevail in any one instance is a complicated business.
The second reason why assessing trustworthiness remains something of an enigma is that, to put it bluntly, we’ve been going about it in precisely the wrong way. I don’t say this lightly, as many great minds have been focused on this topic for decades. Yet it’s also the case that this intense focus has led to a tunnel vision of sorts that often results in dead ends among the research community and simplistic expectations among the public. Everyone is looking for the one golden cue that predicts trustworthiness in all situations. Everyone assumes that trustworthiness is a fairly stable trait. Everyone believes that they know when and how issues of trust will affect them. The problem, though, is that they’re mostly wrong; trust just doesn’t work the way most people think.
At the most basic level, the need to trust implies one fundamental fact: you’re vulnerable.
The ability to satisfy your needs or obtain the outcomes you desire is not entirely under your control. Whether a business partner embezzles profits that doom your corporation, a spouse has an affair that wrecks your marriage, or a supposed confidant tweets a personal factoid that ruins your reputation, your well-being, like it or not, often depends on the cooperation of others. These others, of course, have needs of their own: needs to pay for a new car that might push them to skim profits and fix the books; needs to have a more charged love life that might lead them to acts of infidelity; or needs to be popular that might cause them to supply some juicy gossip to their friends at your expense. It’s precisely where your needs and theirs diverge that trust comes into play. If each person’s goals were the same—in both nature and priority—there would be no potential conflict and thereby no need to trust. Such alignments of needs and desires only rarely occur, however. The social lives of humans are characterized by a never-ending struggle between different types of desires—desires favoring selfish versus selfless goals, desires focused on immediate gratification versus long-term benefit, desires stemming from the conscious versus unconscious minds. Only an overriding threat or an amazing confluence of random factors—what we’d otherwise call pure luck—can result in an exact mirroring of two people’s needs and goals at all levels. Trust, then, is simply a bet, and like all bets, it contains an element of risk. Yet risk is something most of us could do without.