Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Letting Our Guard Down

Are most people decent? Your answer may change with age.

“When you think of old age, you often think of decline,” says Northwestern
University psychologist Claudia Haase. Some things grow stronger with age, however, and researchers may have identified one of them: Trust.

Building on prior investigations, Haase and psychologist Michael Poulin of the State University of New York at Buffalo found that across 83 countries, older adults report greater trust in other people than younger adults do. And in a separate study that tracked American individuals over time, they found evidence that trust increases with age. One possible explanation: “If you live long enough, you have a lot of different encounters with a lot of different people,” Poulin says. If most work out in your favor, you’ll adjust your inclinations accordingly. As adults grow older, he notes, they tend to spend more time with people they actually like, so people in general may begin to seem more trustworthy.

Trust based on average of responses to the question: “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people?” (1 = “Can’t be too careful.” 2 = “Depends.” 3 = “Most people can be trusted.”) Source: Social Psychological and Personality Science, August 2015

Trusting older adults can become vulnerable targets for fraud or mistreatment, as some recent studies have shown. But Poulin and his colleagues also identified a positive association between trust and personal well-being, suggesting that the benefits of increased trust may outweigh the risks. “The more you trust, the more you’re willing to have positive interactions with other people,” Poulin says. The result: more satisfying life experiences, which in turn feed even greater trust.—Alexis Hatcher

A Matter of Respect

Have you ever surprised yourself by taking a chance on someone you didn’t know? Researchers at Cornell and the University of Cologne propose that we trust unfamiliar people in part to avoid disrespecting them. They gave students a choice between keeping a sum of money ($5 in most trials) or entrusting it to someone who could either return a larger sum or hoard it all. The subjects considered keeping the cash (and not trusting the stranger) less respectful and more guilt-provoking than giving it up. Though they guessed the odds of getting money back were about 50-50 or worse, 62 percent still opted to trust. When the wager rested on a coin flip—and didn’t involve anyone else’s character—fewer than half risked the money. —Isabelle Bank

Credit: Diego Cervo/Shutterstock