The Psychology of Trust: Anne Böckler-Raettig (Full Transcript)

Let’s say she chooses 60 euros. Now comes the critical part of this paradigm: this amount is then tripled. So, Bella receives three times the amount that Alice has entrusted her with.

Now it’s Bella’s turn. Bella can decide how much she wants to give back to reciprocate to Alice. If she chooses 90 euros, then Bella is left with 90 euros, Alice has 130 euros. That means that if Alice trusts and Bella reciprocates, both of them end up with more than they had before. Both of them benefit.

Especially when we have this interaction continued for several rounds, this allows us to really look at the development, the dynamics of trust, and of trust-based relationships. This has yielded really interesting findings.

For instance, in some people, in some groups, trust declines quickly. Cooperation breaks down, nobody wins, everybody’s unhappy.

By contrast, in other groups, other people manage to establish stable, functioning, mutually beneficial relationships. Everybody wins and everybody’s happy.

What’s the difference? What do those who succeed do differently?

Well, one thing that those who manage to establish long-term trust-based relationships do differently is they forgive.

I think in most relationships there is a point where the other person does not behave the way we expected her to. For instance, and this might be a bit disappointing, because Bella didn’t reciprocate as much as Alice expected her to. This can be a misunderstanding, it can be teasing, it can be an active breach of trust.

In order for the cooperation to not break down, Alice needs to do something. Alice needs to overcome her uncertainty, even her anger, and give Bella a second chance. She needs to trust in, invest in Bella again. Maybe not five times or six times, but certainly once or twice.

That is, in fact, what the groups who manage to establish relationships that are mutually beneficial do differently.

On the side of the other person, Bella, there might be situations when Bella notices, “Alice doesn’t seem to trust me that much anymore. Alice doesn’t invest that much in me anymore.”

There’s also something that Bella can do. Bella can actively repair the relationship by coaxing Alice back into trusting her. She can convince Alice to trust her again by reciprocating especially much, for a few rounds.

So, there is forgiving, there is coaxing others back into trusting us, and how do we do that? There is a cognitive skill that is really crucial for these behaviors, and that is perspective taking or theory of mind.

We need to take the perspective of the other, put ourselves in the shoes of the other, so we need to think about what the other wants, feels, plans, believes or knows.

We can only forgive others if we think about that, “Well, maybe there might be different reasons why the other behaved the way she did.”

Also, for coaxing others back into trusting us, we need to consider, “Well, yes, maybe the other has lost trust in us.” Not surprisingly do new scientific findings show that brain areas that are involved in the process of taking other’s perspective are also really important during trust-based interactions.

So, taken together, trust is not something we can just switch on. Trust is an inherently dynamic process.

Saying “I trust you” or “Trust me” is not the end of the story; it is really only the beginning. So far, it probably sounds to you as if trust is a pretty effortful business.

We need to overcome these untrustworthy signals of trustworthiness that I talked about in the beginning, and we need to think about what others are thinking about and it sounds all quite strenuous.

But – and that is the last point – it is really necessary. Trust is indispensable, and trust is not really something that is just nice to have; it’s not the cherry on the pie.

I think that trust is the salt in our social supper, really. If you think for a moment about these very simple interactions I just showed you, but also if you think about the interaction you have and the relationships you enter, and it becomes evident that without an initial leap of faith, without trust, cooperations, interactions, trust-based relationships could never be established.

A very touching example from the animal kingdom involves vampire bats. These little creatures need to feed every night, or every second night at the latest, otherwise they starve. However, every night up to 30% of them don’t catch food.

That would be quite tragic, didn’t they have specific mutual friendships with other bats, in which food is shared. If one bat doesn’t catch anything, she can go to her friend and the friend regurgitates blood. That is pretty gross, but that is a life saver.

This favor is later reciprocated when the other bat did not catch anything. Critical point is that without an initial leap of faith, without an initial incident of one bat sharing with the other, this life-saving reciprocal interaction or relationship could never have been established. We need trust to establish relationships.

What else? Another benefit of trust is that we need trust to recognize signs of distrust. That sounds funny in the beginning. It seems though, and that is what psychological research suggests, that people who tend to trust others less – and that is symbolized by the woman in the picture who doesn’t expect anything good to come from the guy with flowers – people who tend to expect the worst from others are also less capable of recognizing when others are hurt or huffed. They don’t recognize signs of distrust, and as a consequence, they’re less capable, less willing to repair relationships, to coax others back into trusting them.

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