Full transcript of professor Anne Böckler-Raettig’s TEDx Talk: The Psychology of Trust at TEDxFrankfurt conference.
Anne Böckler-Raettig – Professor of Psychology
When I was a child, I remember playing outside and out of my parents’ sight for hours.
The neighbors’ kids, my little brother and I, we would climb trees in the woods, build hideouts, wade in the river, meet new friends, and only much later did it strike me how much trust this must have required on my parents’ side.
Trust in the people we would meet, trust in the older kids, but also trust in me. I often wondered whether and how their trust possibly influenced me.
Then I grew up, I became a cognitive psychologist, and now I investigate the processes that enable us humans to coordinate and cooperate with one another.
And again I look at trust, and I noticed that trust really is a key component in our social lives. I want to share insights with you, insights from psychology, social neuroscience and behavioral economics, to back up my three favorite points about trust.
That is that trust can be difficult. Trust is dynamic and most of all, trust is indispensable. Especially when we don’t know people well, when we meet strangers for the first time, deciding whom to trust really can be a challenge. Nonetheless, we humans make this decision often within a few hundred milliseconds.
But what do we base this important decision on?
Well, one cue we use to decide whether or not to trust somebody is their faces, their facial features.
Let me show you two examples. Whom of these two guys would you rather trust? Who chooses the left one? Raise your hand. Who chooses the right one? A few.
Yes. Your voting nicely reflects findings from psychology showing that people largely tend to agree on who does and who doesn’t look trustworthy. It’s areas around the eyes, areas around the mouth that are relevant here.
But is the guy on the left really more trustworthy? No. So far, there is no concluding evidence that people with trustworthy faces also behave in a more trustworthy manner.
What else do we use? Well, when we meet people for the first time, we look for signals of authority, of competence. We tend to listen to and comply much more with people who are, for instance, dressed like this, than people who’re dressed like this.
You are all probably familiar with the famous Milgram experiments, that were carried out in the 60s. In these experiments, normal people, people like you and I, were invited to a laboratory, and they were asked to punish students for not remembering words correctly.
Punishment had to be administered by means of electric shocks. Of course, in reality, students didn’t really receive these shocks, but participants certainly believed so. A surprising number of people, of people like you and I, punished these students by administering lethal, deadly electric stimulation.
That is the critical point – they did so especially when the instructor, the one who instructed them to punish students, showed these tokens of authority and competence, like a white lab coat. I think this shows that trusting others merely on the basis of whether they seem competent or whether they seem to have authority can really have devastating consequences.
Also, when we meet others for the first time, we tend to listen a lot to what others have to say about them: their reputation. In fact, prior information we have about somebody else can have such a strong influence on our expectations that we entirely ignore how this person really behaves.
So we ignore somebody’s trustworthy behavior towards us when we already expect him or her to be untrustworthy. These examples, I think, show that these signals of trustworthiness – how somebody’s face looks, somebody’s clothes, somebody’s reputation – these signals of trustworthiness, they aren’t so trustworthy themselves.
This makes deciding whom to trust difficult, because we have to put an effort into not trusting those who might not be as trustworthy as they look. And equally important, we have to make an effort to not deprive of our trust those who deserve it, but might not quite look like it.
So, we shouldn’t judge strangers too quickly. That was all about situations in which we don’t know others well.
But even after we started an interaction, we start a relationship with somebody, trust isn’t something we can just switch on. It is an inherently ongoing, interactive and dynamic process.
Psychologists and behavioral economists have studied trust for many decades. They have used very simple paradigms in which trust is operationalized, is measured as an investment — an investment of time, effort or money.
I’ll show you one very simple paradigm. In this paradigm, in this task, you have two people: person A and person B; let’s call them Alice and Bella. They don’t know each other, they are merely connected via an internet platform. They might see each other’s picture, and they enter a formalized, a very simple interaction in which one of them, Alice, has a certain amount of money. Let’s say Alice has 100 euros, and she can now choose how much she wants to invest in Bella.