What really drives success and failure?
Can I trust you? It's the question that strikes at the heart of human existence. Whether we're talking about business partnerships, romantic relationships, child-parent bonds, or the brave new world of virtual interaction, trust, when correctly placed, is what makes our world spin and lives flourish.
Renowned psychologist David DeSteno brings together the latest research from diverse fields, including psychology, economics, biology, and robotics, to create a compelling narrative about the forces that have shaped the human mind's propensities to trust. He shows us how trust influences us at every level, from how we learn, to how we love, to how we spend, to how we take care of our own health and well-being. Using cutting edge research from his own lab, he also unlocks, for the first time, the cues that allow us to read the trustworthiness of others accurately.
Appealing to readers of Dan Ariely, Dan Gilbert, and David Eaglemen, The Truth About Trust offers a new paradigm that will change not only how you think about trust, but also how you understand, communicate, and make decisions in every area of your life.
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DAVID DESTENO is a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, where he directs the Social Emotions Group. A fellow of the Association for Psychological Science and editor in chief of the American Psychological Association’s journal Emotion, he is the author, with Piercarlo Valdesolo, of Out of Character. DeSteno earned his PhD from Yale University and has written for publications including the New York Times and Boston Globe. He lives in Massachusetts.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Can I trust you? This question—this set of four simple words—often occupies our minds to a degree few other concerns can. It’s a question on which we exert a lot of mental effort—often without our even knowing it—as its answers have the potential to influence almost everything we do. Unlike many other puzzles we confront, questions of trust don’t just involve attempting to grasp and analyze a perplexing concept. They all share another characteristic: risk. So while it’s true that we turn our attention to many complex problems throughout our lives, finding the answers to most doesn’t usually involve navigating the treacherous landscape of our own and others’ competing desires. When we’re young, asking why the sky is blue or why pizza can’t be for dinner every night, though sometimes seeming of equal cosmic importance, necessitates only the transmission of facts to answer. Wondering what exactly a Higgs boson is or whether anything out of the ordinary really happened at Roswell can, it’s true, keep the gears of the mind whirring. For most of us, though, attempts to find answers to these questions won’t keep us up at night. And while asking our financial advisor for the eighth time how to calculate compound interest might require stepping up our mental math, in and of itself, finding the answer is fairly formulaic. Bring the word trust into the equation, however, and it suddenly becomes a whole different story.
Trust implies a seeming unknowable—a bet of sorts, if you will. At its base is a delicate problem centered on the balance between two dynamic and often opposing desires—a desire for someone else to meet your needs and his desire to meet his own. Whether a child can trust her parents’ answer to her question about the color of the sky requires estimating not only their scientific bona fides, but also their desire to appear smart even if they really don’t know the answer. Whether she can trust them to make pizza for dinner, rather than simply ask why she can’t have it every night, relies on divining her parents’ willingness to uphold their promise to cook in the face of sudden needs to work late or to take an extra trip to the grocery store to refill an empty pantry. Whether you can trust scientists to tell you why searching for the Higgs or related subatomic particles is worth the huge taxpayer expense, rather than ask them to simply provide a definition for what the little particle is, means pitting everyone’s desire to acquire knowledge that can lead to a better world against the scientists’ related desires to pad their research budgets. The same logic even applies to trusting yourself. Think about it. Whether you can trust that you’ll invest your next paycheck for the long term as opposed to spending it immediately to purchase the newest iPad is quite different from figuring out how much money you’ll have in twenty years if you do choose to invest it. Whether we’re talking about money, fidelity, social support, business dealings, or secret-keeping, trust isn’t just about the facts. It’s about trying to predict what someone will do based on competing interests and capabilities. In short, it’s about gambling on your ability to read someone’s mind, even if that someone is your future self.
Like all gambles, though, assessing trustworthiness is an imperfect endeavor; there’s always a chance you’re going to come up short. Sure, most of us have theories about what signals whether people can be trusted. Do they stumble over their words or avert their gaze? Do they seem too “smooth”? Did they “come through” last time? The problem, of course, is that most of us have also had the all-too-frequent experience of being surprised when our guesses turned out to be wrong. We’re not alone, however; deception “experts” and security professionals haven’t proved much better. Until very recently, there’s been precious little evidence indicating that anyone can accurately determine if someone else can be trusted, especially if they don’t know the individual well.
Scientists have spent decades looking for markers of trustworthiness in the body, face, voice, penmanship, and the like, all to little avail. Forget what you see on television; it’s all science fiction. If polygraphs were foolproof, we wouldn’t need juries. After all, the list of famous criminals who were found guilty based on polygraphs doesn’t include the likes of CIA-spy-turned-traitor Aldrich Ames and “Green River Killer” Gary Ridgway, both of whom “passed” this physiological test. Likewise, there wouldn’t be a long list of people who had to endure false accusations based on failed polygraph tests—people like Bill Wegerle of Wichita, Kansas, who was initially suspected of being the BTK killer. Entertaining movies and television shows aside, the same criticisms apply to the use of facial expressions. If a single smile or twitch could accurately predict who could be trusted, all negotiations would occur under a spotlight with video recordings. Science, put simply, doesn’t yet have all the answers to unlocking the mysteries of trust. Still, finding the keys is of such importance that the business community and the military spend millions of dollars a year trying to do just that. In fact, current knowledge has been so limited that the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA)—one of the central research units under the Director of National Intelligence—published a notice in 2009 specifically soliciting scientific proposals to develop new and more accurate methods to gauge a target’s trustworthiness.
This state of affairs raises some questions, however: If the need to trust is so central to humans, why is it so difficult to figure out who is worthy of it? Why after millennia of evolutionary development and decades of scientific inquiry are answers only beginning to emerge? To my mind, there are two good reasons. The first, as I’ve hinted, is that unlike many forms of communication, issues of trust are often characterized by a competition or battle. As we’ll see, it’s not always an adaptive strategy to be an open book to others, or even to ourselves. Consequently, trying to discern if someone can be trusted is fundamentally different from trying to assess characteristics like mathematical ability. Aptitude in math can be estimated from answers to specific types of problems. Unless the person is a genius trying to pull the wool over your eyes, there shouldn’t be any competing interests pushing her answers one way or another. As a result, her answers should, on average, serve as accurate indicators of her true abilities and be solid predictors of how she’ll perform in the future. With trust, neither of these facts is necessarily true. As we’ll see throughout this book, deciding to be trustworthy depends on the momentary balance between competing mental forces pushing us in opposite directions, and being able to predict which of those forces is going to prevail in any one instance is a complicated business.
The second reason why assessing trustworthiness remains something of an enigma is that, to put it bluntly, we’ve been going about it in precisely the wrong way. I don’t say this lightly, as many great minds have been focused on this topic for decades. Yet it’s also the case that this intense focus has led to a tunnel vision of sorts that often results in dead ends among the research community and simplistic expectations among the public. Everyone is looking for the one golden cue that predicts trustworthiness in all situations. Everyone assumes that trustworthiness is a fairly stable trait. Everyone believes that they know when and how issues of trust will affect them. The problem, though, is that they’re mostly wrong; trust just doesn’t work the way most people think.
How do I know? I could say, “Trust me,” but that would defeat the whole point. I’m a scientist, so my goal is to convince you based on findings—not on opinions or testimonials. I should note that I haven’t spent my life as a trust researcher, a security professional, or a science writer. To the contrary, I spend my days running a lab focused on one primary theme: how and why emotional states guide social and moral behavior. It’s been an endeavor characterized by both great discoveries and never-ending questions. It’s one that has allowed my research group to plumb the depths of the best and worst humanity has to offer. Whether we’re uncovering the processes that give rise to dishonesty and hypocrisy or shedding light on the wonders of compassion and virtue, the task at hand always requires a lot of creativity and a willingness to go where the data lead. It’s also a job that requires a bit of humility. The longer I do it, the more I realize that the best way to answer perennially difficult questions is not to go it alone, but rather to bring the best minds from many different fields together to look at old problems in new ways. This is exactly the perspective that my group brought to studying trust, and it’s one that has allowed us to approach the issue with an entirely new perspective.
Why the interest in trust in the first place? Primarily because the more we examined vacillations in emotions and moral behavior, the more we realized that trust often played a central role. Whether it’s wondering if a partner might cheat, needing to show that you recognize a responsibility to repay a debt, or desiring to signal that your abilities are up to the challenge, issues of trust rear their head. Jealousy and anger often stem from distrust of the loyalty of a partner. Showing gratitude stands as an efficient way to let people know you realize you owe them a favor. Quick flashes of pride can signal people that they can trust your competence. In short, much of human social life, and the emotions that revolve around it, invokes issues of trust in one way or another. Given this fact, my research group turned its lens on the dual aspects of trust—both how it works and whether and how people can accurately predict who is worthy of it. In so doing, we began an in-depth and novel investigation that traipsed across many traditionally separate fields of inquiry. In the end, what emerged are not only new insights into how to detect the trustworthiness of others, but also an entirely new way to think about how trust influences our lives, our success, and our interactions with those around us.
Still, of all the things I learned, one of the most profound—and the one I hope you’ll take from this book—is that trust isn’t only a concern that emerges at big moments in our lives. It’s not relevant just to signing a contract, making a large purchase, and exchanging wedding vows. Yes, these events certainly affect our lives in important ways and depend on trust, but they’re just the tip of the iceberg. Whether we realize it or not, issues of trust permeate our days from the time we’re born to the time we die, and it’s often what’s below the surface of consciousness that can have the greatest influence on a life well lived. Our minds didn’t develop in a social vacuum. Humans evolved living in social groups, and that means the minds of our ancestors were sculpted by the challenges posed by living with others on whom they depended. Chief among those challenges was the need to solve dilemmas of trust correctly. And it’s precisely because of this fact that the human mind constantly tries to ascertain the trustworthiness of others while also weighing the need to be trustworthy itself. Your conscious experience may not correspond with this fact, but again that’s because much of the relevant computations are automatic and take place outside of awareness.
As you’ll see in this book, trust influences more than most of us would have imagined. It affects how we learn, how we love, how we spend, how we take care of our health, and how we maximize our well-being. It not only affects our communication and comfort with others, but as our social worlds change from the physical to the virtual, the role of trust and its impact on our interactions will change as well. I invite you to come on the journey with me to find out exactly what we do and don’t know about the role of trust in our lives. Along the way, I’ll discuss not only work from my lab that bears on the issue, but also the work, views, and opinions of some of the best thinkers on the topic. From economists and computer scientists, to social media mavens and security officials, to physiologists and psychologists, it’ll be a wide-ranging journey designed to put the pieces together.
To accomplish this goal, I’ve loosely divided the book into four parts. The first two chapters will set the stage by laying out the fundamentals—what trust is, why it matters, how it’s physiologically embodied, and how we might profitably correct older ways of thinking about it. The next three chapters will explore the far-ranging ways trust impacts us—from how trust develops and influences children’s morality and ability to learn, to the ways trust or lack thereof shapes relationships with those we love, to how and why power and money have the potential to alter loyalties. The sixth chapter turns the tables from an examination of how trust affects behavior to the age-old question of whether and how we can actually detect the trustworthiness of others. Here, I’ll flip the old view on its head and open a whole new vista from which to explore trust detection. I’ll also point out some bugs in the system, thereby arming you to avoid succumbing to them.
From this base, the final section—chapters 7 and 8—will move in a slightly different though no less important direction. Here, I’ll consider what all of the preceding means for two relatively novel realms when it comes to trust—realms where a partner isn’t exactly who, or even what, you’d usually expect. Can you trust a virtual avatar? A robot? An unknown person on Facebook? How trust works in a world of rapid technological advancement and virtual interaction—a world where the science of trust can be manipulated and used for good or ill with unprecedented precision—is the first theme I’ll explore. Consideration of the second realm, however, will require adopting a different focus. Rather than looking outward to decide whom you can trust, I’ll ask you to direct your gaze inward to ask what may be a more unsettling, yet in many ways a more fundamental, question for reaching your goals: Can you trust yourself? Although it’s true that cooperation and vulnerability require two parties, no one ever said that the two parties had to be different people. To the contrary, the parties can be the same person at different times. Can the present you trust the future you not to cheat on your diet by bingeing on chocolate cake? Not to cheat on an exam? Not to cheat on your spouse? Not to go gambling again?
These last questions highlight a nuance it’s important to remember as you proceed through this book. Each of us is never just an observer trying to ascertain whether someone else is to be trusted; we’re also targets of observation ourselves. The same forces that determine whether someone else will be honest or loyal also impinge on our own minds. Assessing the trustworthiness of another and acting trustworthy ourselves, then, are simply two sides of the same coin. Understanding how to predict and control the flip of that coin is wha...
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