Who do you trust?

Who do you trust?

Have you ever let a stranger borrow your cell phone? Or asked someone to watch your belongings?

We’ve all trusted a stranger from time to time, but is there a reason why we trust some strangers and not others?

A recent study found that people are more likely to trust a stranger if the stranger resembles an individual who was known to be trustworthy in the past. Likewise, strangers who resemble an individual who was not trustworthy in the past are less likely to be trusted.

“We make decisions about a stranger’s reputation without any direct or explicit information about them based on their similarity to others we’ve encountered, even when we’re unaware of this resemblance,” study author Elizabeth Phelps said in a press release.

The study consisted of a trust game where subjects had to entrust their money with a partner they chose from a facial image. Each image was labeled as someone who was either highly trustworthy, somewhat trustworthy or not at all trustworthy.

In the next task, the same subjects were asked to select new partners for a different game.

Subjects consistently chose to play with a stranger who resembled the original player who they learned was trustworthy and avoided playing with a stranger who resembled the player that they learned was untrustworthy.

“Our study reveals that strangers are distrusted even when they only minimally resemble someone previously associated with immoral behavior,” study co-author Oriel FeldmanHall said in the release. “Like Pavlov’s dog, who, despite being conditioned on a single bell, continues to salivate to bells that have similar tones, we use information about a person’s moral character, in this case whether they can be trusted, as a basic Pavlovian learning mechanism in order to make judgments about strangers.”

“Trust is an extremely important part of all relationships in our lives, and the level of trust will oftentimes determine our level of investment in interacting with a specific person,” says Dr. Kevin Krippner, an Advocate Medical Group psychologist in Bloomington, Ill.

“Trust is usually created when people use their prior experience and interactions with another person to guide the amount of trust they put in the current and future relationship.”

To alter our unconscious decision making, there are other ways to determine if we can trust a stranger rather than just judging their appearance.

“It is important to try and recognize our tendency to judge others and to try and keep this tendency to a minimum,” says Dr. Krippner.

“Awareness is very important.  If you want to change this habit, try being more aware of your immediate reactions when you see others and begin to judge. Keep in mind the old adage that ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover’, and try to honor that wisdom.”

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One Comment

  1. “It is important to try and recognize our tendency to judge others and to try and keep this tendency to a minimum,” says Dr. Krippner. So we WANT to trust strangers more? I can see this doctor’s point, but not in a conversation about whether or not strangers can or should be trusted. Judging others unfairly and mistrusting strangers are very different situations. Living in this crazy world unfortunately sees many kinds of people from all walks of life hurt and take advantage of others. Based on outward traits alone, we wouldn’t ever be able to pick out all the dangerous people out there, nor would we be able to say someone is definitely friendly/trustworthy by these means alone. Yes, be friendly and don’t judge before getting to know someone, but we don’t have to get to know everyone- some strangers really should be avoided and if you have a gut instinct, my inclination is to follow it. I am absolutely not for unfairly judging anyone, but having a natural gut reaction to something that makes you uncomfortable, no matter what the reason behind that may be (conditioned from previous experiences or not), those feelings can be beneficial and keep you safe. I guess it all depends on the context of encountering the stranger in the first place too. Lots to think about with this article but it seems quite natural for your brain to be making decisions about mistrusting strangers based on prior experience/images, and until you actually get to know someone, you really don’t have any idea whether you can trust them or not!

About the Author

Cristina Meesenburg
Cristina Meesenburg

Cristina Meesenburg, health enews contributor, is a public affairs and marketing intern at Advocate BroMenn Medical Center in Normal, Ill. She is a senior at Illinois State University, pursuing a degree in public relations with a minor in writing. In her free time, she loves traveling, cooking and playing with her Yorkie, Sammy.