The rest is trust: cognitive errors make it easy to misjudge trustworthiness

Be trustworthy not trustingTrust, as any negotiator knows, is critical. Its presence gets commitment; its destruction sours deals. But trusting and being trusted is a delicate balance: effective negotiators know to “be trustworthy, not trusting.” No one wants to be fooled at the negotiating table.

In “Confidence game,” journalist Drake Bennett, writing for the Boston Globe, provides a fascinating look into the related issues of trust and trustworthiness. Trust is essential to much more than negotiation:

…human society would not function without trust. We loan things to friends, we take to the road assuming our fellow drivers are not suicidal, we get on airplanes piloted by people we’ve never seen before, and, when asked to sign something, we rarely read the fine print. If people stopped to double-check the background and references of everyone they had an interaction with, social life would slow to a standstill.

Although one would naturally assume that doubt would be our first reaction, trust is in fact our default response. And all too often, we decide to trust based on the flimsiest of evidence:

When deciding who to trust, the research suggests, people use shortcuts. For example, they look at faces. According to recent work by Nikolaas Oosterhof and Alexander Todorov of Princeton’s psychology department, we form our first opinions of someone’s trustworthiness through a quick physiognomic snapshot. By studying people’s reactions to a range of artificially-generated faces, Oosterhof and Todorov were able to identify a set of features that seemed to engender trust. Working from those findings, they were able to create a continuum: faces with high inner eyebrows and pronounced cheekbones struck people as trustworthy, faces with low inner eyebrows and shallow cheekbones untrustworthy…

Just as in other cognitive shorthands, we make these judgments quickly and unconsciously – and as a result, Oosterhof and Todorov point out, we can severely and immediately misjudge people. In reality, of course, cheekbone shape and eyebrow arc have no relationship with honesty.

But we are led astray in other ways, and it’s not just a trustworthy face that can persuade us:

Another set of cues, and a particularly powerful one, is body language. Mimicry, in particular, seems to put us at our ease. Recent work by Tanya Chartrand, a psychology professor at Duke, and work by Jeremy Bailenson and Nick Yee, media scholars at Stanford, have shown that if a person, or even a computer-animated figure, mimics our movements while talking to us, we will find our interlocutor significantly more persuasive and honest.

These studies remind me strongly of the work of Robert Cialdini, who has revealed how susceptible we are to the weapons of influence and how easily trust can be gained by those who understand how to manipulate human behavior.

As skilled negotiators know, be trustworthy, not trusting.

5 responses to “The rest is trust: cognitive errors make it easy to misjudge trustworthiness

  1. Diane, this was a very timely and helpful post; I gained great insight into an issue I am dealing with in workplace conflict matter~really got my brain moving in the right direction. Many thanks.

  2. Rebecca, you are very kind to let me know. I’m glad this was useful to you. I do try to share with readers articles or ideas that I personally find helpful. Thank you for telling me that this made a difference.

  3. Diane, another excellent post. Your writing is thoughtful and incisive. I’d like to get your take on what, on the face of it, is an opposing view. (I’m not sure it really is opposing, myself).

    It is best stated in a quote attributed to Henry Stimson, Secretary of War under Roosevelt, who said, “”The best way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him.”

    I think there’s some intuitive truth here. For one thing, the willingness to make oneself vulnerable (sort of the definition of trusting), is what Cialdini describes as the basis for reciprocity–his number one prescription for influencing. If I do for you, you will do for me, is how he puts it. And that offering of vulnerability is what triggers the reciprocity.

    That said, your point also makes intuitive sense–be trustworthy but not trusting.

    How do you reconcile them?

    Charlie Green

  4. Charlie, first of all, thank you so much for your kind words. That means a great deal to me, since I am a great admirer of your blog, Trust Matters, and am often struck by the degree to which your observations resonate with my own work, since trust is central to my roles as a mediator and as a negotiation coach.

    I am intrigued by the question you pose. There is no doubt that human interaction — whether commercial or personal in focus — requires at times a leap of faith. This is as true of arms-length negotiators as it is of new friends. There would be neither marriages nor business deals without some element of trust and optimism for the future, some willingness on all sides to be vulnerable.

    It’s true as you point out that vulnerability can trigger the reciprocal action. But I don’t think “be trustworthy, not trusting” contradicts that — I think it reminds us that we can be vulnerable but that we should be strategic and purposeful in the moments when we show vulnerability. Vulnerability — showing trust in others — is best tempered by judgment and reflection.

    For example, in Cialdini’s most recent book, “Yes: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive”, he and his co-authors describe how touting one’s weaknesses creates the perception that one is trustworthy (think, “Avis: We’re #2, but we try harder!”). Yet one must be strategic: as the co-authors write, “you’re going to be able to use this strategy effectively only if your weaknesses are genuinely minor ones. This is why we rarely see ad campaigns with mottos like, ‘Ranked last in its class by J.D. Power and Associates, but once we get these wrongful death suits taken care of, we’ll try harder.'”

    Thank you, Charlie, for taking the time to post such a thoughtful comment and to raise such a fascinating question. I’m going to continue to reflect on it.

  5. william keturkis

    good point, I am glad to see that everybody can agree in this conversation and is happy with it!