Penny For Your Thoughts: How Do You Know You Can Trust Someone?

September 17, 2015  |  

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With all the cheating (Ashley Madison) and secret lives scandals (Jared Fogle, among others), have I been the only one wondering whom we can really trust?

A new study from Dartmouth sheds light on what motivates people to trust others, though the researchers didn’t measure trustworthiness in romantic relationships. Rather, study participants played an economic investment game with an algorithm that only reciprocated their trust 50 percent of the time.  I won’t bore you with the other specific details about how the study worked. But I do want to use the latest finding in this research to figure out what motivates you to trust people.

Although the participants were actually playing the investment game with a math program, the researchers told them that they were playing with a close friend, a stranger or a slot machine. The researchers learned that people found positive interactions with the “close friend” more rewarding than with a stranger or a slot machine. They called this reward factor “social value.” As it were, “social value” is a better predictor of participants’ investment decisions than financial payoffs.

Luke Chang, assistant professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth said about the study’s results,  “These findings show the importance of social relationships in how we make everyday decisions and specifically how relationships can change our perceived value associated with a given decision.”

Reading about the study got me thinking about my personal trust mechanism. Initially, I go with my gut. And my gut, like a lot of people’s guts, goes with facial characteristics. If I’m at a coffee shop and the woman sitting at the table beside me looks trustworthy enough (kind face, smiling as she texts on her smartphone, stylishly dressed with a cute handbag dangling from the back of an empty chair), that’s the person to whom I will say, “Would you mind keeping an eye on my stuff for a minute while I go to the bathroom?” At this very minute, however, I’m sitting in a cafe and painfully ignoring the urge to pee because the only person in sight is a slightly unkempt-looking woman with leathery skin. She has a frown on her face as she reads the paper, baggy mismatched clothes on, and no handbag. I know it’s not scientific, but something about her doesn’t look trustworthy to me. (Mind you, at this moment I don’t look unlike her. I have on baggy mismatched clothes and I left the house without applying any lip gloss or brushing my afro weave.)

Then again, how do we even know that our close friends are more trustworthy than strangers, especially when it comes to things like money? The Dartmouth study used a financial investment game and in certain instances told participants that the person they were investing with was a close friend. I’ve never been in business or made any major collaborative money decisions with a friend (besides splitting rent, grocery bills or happy hour tabs). So how do you know that the close friend with whom you’d share your deepest secrets is also a good partner with whom to share your financial future?

Money aside, is trust just a numbers game? Is it that the more time you’ve invested in a relationship with someone, the more trust you build? Is time the only difference between a close friend and a stranger? Is a close friend someone whom you’ve known for years and who can rattle off the names of all your boyfriends? If so, then what about people with whom you’ve shared a greater magnitude of experience without as much time? For instance, someone whom you’ve only known for a few months, but those were the most dramatic months of your adult life so far and you couldn’t have made it through without them. Do you trust them? 

What I’m saying is that we throw around the word “trust” a lot. The Dartmouth study intended to measure how much the trust factor mattered when making collaborative decisions (financial and otherwise). And, perhaps, there is no greater test of faith in someone than a collaboration. Do you agree? Are there other ways to put your trust in someone to the test?

And what does trust really boil down to for you? Do you have degrees or categories of trustworthiness? Say, I trust this person with my ATM pin but I don’t trust her to be in the same room with my man. I trust this person to babysit my kid but I don’t trust her to deposit a check into my account when I’m out of town. Or, I trust this person to throw my bridal shower without a hitch but I don’t trust her to co-invest in a real estate deal.

Don’t be afraid to be honest, either. I promise: You can trust me.

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