Why Trust Isn't Easy

New research proves that, for some of us, trusting others is hard work.

Posted Apr 22, 2014

Trust is important. Without the ability to trust strangers, society would fall apart. You have to trust that people will generally deal with you honestly and follow through on their commitments. After all, you don't know all the people who grow your food, make your clothes, and take care of your money in the bank. You don't have the time to do all of these things for yourself.

Most of this trust is implicit. You don't often think about the number of strangers you rely on to get through your daily life. 

Sometimes, though, you have to place your trust in a stranger more explicitly. Not long ago, I was sitting at an airport by a bank of power outlets. A woman walked up, plugged in a cell phone, and asked two of us sitting by the outlets to watch her phone for a few minutes while she went to check her flight. She had to trust that we wouldn't steal her phone, and we had to trust that she was not leaving us sitting next to a dangerous device. In the end, our mutual trust was justified.

An interesting paper accepted for publication in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology by Sarah Ainsworth, Roy Baumeister, Kathleen Vohs, and Dan Ariely examines whether this kind of trust among strangers requires mental effort.

The basis of their studies was a behavioral economics game called the Trust Game. In the game, participants are given $10. They are then told that they can give as much of that money as they want to their partner. The experimenter will then triple the amount of money given to the partner. (If the participant elects to give $3 to the partner, the partner will receive $9 from the experimenter.) The partner can then return as much of that money as he or she chooses to the first participant.

This game requires trust. The best joint outcome for the players requires the first participant to give all of the money to the partner and for the partner to then split the proceeds equally. If the first participant does not trust the partner, he or she can simply choose to keep all of the money.

The researchers suggest that trusting a stranger in this game requires overcoming a natural tendency to avoid risk. To explore this possibility, they overlaid an ego depletion manipulation on this study. According to the concept of ego depletion, when people engage in a period of effortful self-regulation, they have difficulty overcoming their habitual tendencies in the future. So, if trust requires some amount of effort, then people who do a task that requires effort before the game will trust the stranger less than those who do not do such a task.

In one study, participants watched a silent video of a woman being interviewed. Periodically, words appeared in the lower right corner of the screen. One group just watched the video with no additional instruction, while a second group was told to ignore the words—and to return their attention to the woman as soon as they noticed themselves looking at the words. (This task has been used in previous research on ego depletion.)

After watching the video, participants played the trust game, and were told that their partner was in another room. Participants also filled out a form that measured the personality characteristic of neuroticism—the degree to which people tend to focus on negative outcomes, and the degree to which they tend to experience high-arousal emotions like anxiety and anger.

In the study, participants with low levels of neuroticism were not strongly influenced by the ego depletion manipulation. However, those with a high level of neuroticism gave much less money to their partner when they played the game after trying to avoid looking at the words on the video than when they did not. 

The idea here is that people with a high level of neuroticism—particularly the aspect of neuroticism that focuses on the strength of their negative emotions—have a tendency to fear risk. This group wants to avoid giving money to the partner, and only when they have enough motivational energy will they be able to overcome that tendency. 

Separate experiments examined two other factors that influence people’s likelihood of trusting someone else. In one, some participants were told they would meet their partner after the game. In the other, participants were given a (fake) EEG measurement at the start of the game, and some were told that their unseen partner had a very similar EEG measurement—the sort you would only expect among siblings, relatives, or close friends. 

The ego depletion manipulation did not influence the amount of money people were willing to give to their partner when they believed they would meet their partner or when they believed they were very similar to their partner. It did influence the amount of money that highly neurotic individuals were willing to give when they did not think they would meet their partner or that they were similar to their partner.

Putting all of this together: Trusting strangers sometimes requires effort. In particular, when you believe you will never meet someone, or that you have no particular similarity to them, you believe there is a risk to trusting them. The more strongly you react to that kind of risk, the more effort you'll need to trust a stranger. 

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