As a human, trust is vital to us for a secure and flourishing life. It is what underpins our relationships and the closer and more intimate those relationships become the greater the level of trust employed in them. But who do we decide to trust or not trust when we first meet people. Who is it that passes the first few trust tests so that we often go on to form deeper relationships with?
Trust is an emotion. It is an emotional response to the apparent congruence between our perception of someone and our interpretation of their actions. In other words we tend to trust people if what they say and what they do are similar and their actions are not harmful in anyway towards us.
The psychologist Erik Erikson has the formation of trust as the very first stage of psychological development of a child and that all human attachment and safety stems from the first bonds of trust they develop. Erikson firmly understood that the formation of trust with the child's caregiver is the most important stage of human development and will, in effect, lay down the blueprint for forming secure, trusting and intimate relationships for the rest of that individual's life.
The effect of trust being broken will depend on the level of relationship you have with the other individual. When a trust is broken in an intimate relationship, the results can be devastating.
So who do we trust and why? A series of recent studies sheds some interesting light on what happens. One would think that trust is earned. However it would appear to be the opposite for most people. We tend to trust first and then remove the level of trust if it is shown to have been incorrect. The obvious exception to this is where we have recently had a previous significant negative experience, however studies have shown that for most people this doesn't usually last too long.
A number of studies found that we tend to trust strangers far more than there is evidence to do so. Indeed in laboratory simulations, it has been found that people tend to trust people they don't know even where the risk, if the trust were betrayed, would lead to significant loss or even injury. A study published last month showed that what the researchers termed 'excessive trust' in strangers, in most cases stems from an emotional sense that they are fulfilling a 'social duty' or 'responsibility'. In other words it is perceived to be socially unacceptable to show distrust without evidence, especially in the case of strangers. In the case of strangers there is some evidence that anxiety about being judged as mean or not a nice person fuels this excessive trust.
In another study, published this week, it was shown that we tend to be more likely to trust strangers who smile and not trust people who look angry. Children in the age range of 6-12 are particularly susceptible to this effect and children with ASD or Autism Spectrum Disorder show an even more marked trust response to individuals who smile. As a parent I find this particularly disturbing.
However it is not just children. Adults are also more likely to trust a stranger who smiles over one with a neutral or angry face.
Numerous studies show that people of all ages tend to make a decision whether to trust someone or not purely based on the look of a stranger's face. What is more there is a cognitive bias called the bias blind spot. We all tend to believe that we are less biased than others and that our beliefs are more likely to be accurate even in the face of evidence to show that we are no more correct than random chance.
The main thing to take from this is that we tend to overly believe our estimations of trustworthiness based on facial 'look' and that for most people social anxiety about being perceived as mean or 'not nice' pushes into what we believe is socially acceptable niceness of trusting first and the belief that we should always show respect for the other person's character, even if there is a lot at risk.
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