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.
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.
As a consequence of that, their cooperations really break down more quickly. So, nice example of a self-fulfilling prophecy. As odd as it sounds, we need to trust, we need to be trustful to recognize distrust and then to repair relationships.
The final point is as simple as it is nice: we genuinely enjoy being trusted. When other people place trust in us, this makes us feel good; it make us feel good about ourselves.
And initial evidence from new scientific studies shows that our brains seem to inherently reward us for being trusted. That’s not all.
Closing the circle, if you will, our brains not only reward us for being trusted, but also for being trustworthy. We genuinely enjoy behaving in a trustworthy manner.
We don’t want to breach others’ trust; we want to reciprocate, to do right by others. The strong preferences to be trusted and be trustworthy are deeply ingrained in us.
Taken together, besides being a difficult business sometimes, and besides being very dynamic, trust is really indispensable. We need trust to establish, to maintain and to repair relationships. Trust empowers us and we can empower others by trusting them.
This brings me back to my initial example of my parents, and them letting me play outside and out of their sight. Maybe inspired by the vampire bats, they are dressed like vampires here, and that is quite a while ago. I think they allowed for a lot of good things to happen by trusting me to play out of their sight.
Meeting new kids, I could learn that not everybody is as trustworthy or untrustworthy as they look. I could learn that maintaining relationships takes a lot of forgiving and being forgiven. By trusting me I think they taught me to trust others and trust myself.
That is a pretty great gift that I hope I can pass on to my children one day.