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The Trust Gap: Why People Are So Cynical

How do people come to believe that others are so much less trustworthy than themselves?

Much as we might prefer otherwise, there’s solid evidence that, on average, people are quite cynical about human nature.

When thinking about strangers, studies have shown that people think others are more selfishly motivated than they really are and that others are less helpful than they really are.

Similarly in financial games psychologists have run in the lab, people are remarkably cynical about the trustworthiness of others. In one experiment people honoured the trust placed in them between 80% and 90% of the time, but only estimated that others would honour their trust about 50% of the time.

Our cynicism towards strangers may develop as early as 7 years old (Mills & Keil, 2005). Surprisingly people are even overly cynical about their loved ones, assuming they will behave more selfishly than they really do (Kruger & Gilovich, 1999).

What could create such a huge gap between how people behave themselves and how they think others behave?

Trust me

People often say that it’s experience that breeds this cynicism rather than a failing in human nature. This is true, but only in a special way.

Think about it like this: the first time you trust a stranger and are betrayed, it makes sense to avoid trusting other strangers in the future. The problem is that when we don’t ever trust strangers, we never find out how trustworthy people in general really are. As a result our estimation of them is governed by fear.

If this argument is correct, it is lack of experience that leads to people’s cynicism, specifically not enough positive experiences of trusting strangers. This idea is tested in a new study published in Psychological Science. Fetchenhauer and Dunning (2010) set up a kind of ideal world in the lab where people were given accurate information about the trustworthiness of strangers to see if that would reduce their cynicism.

They recruited 120 participants to take part in a game of economic trust. Each person was given €7.50 and asked if they’d like to hand it to another person. If the other person made the same decision the pot would increase to €30. They were then asked to estimate whether the other person would opt to give them their half of the total winnings.

The participants watched 56 short videos of the people they were playing against. The researchers set up two experimental conditions, one to mimic what happens in the real world and one to test an ideal world scenario:

  1. Real life condition: in this group participants were only told about the other person’s decision when they decided to trust them. The idea is that this condition simulates real life. You only find out if others are trustworthy when you decide to trust them. If you don’t trust someone you never find out whether or not they are trustworthy.
  2. Ideal world condition: here participants were given feedback about the trustworthiness of other people whether or not they decided to trust them. This simulates an ideal-world condition where we all know from experience just how trustworthy people are (i.e. much more trustworthy than we think!)

Breaking down cynicism

Once again this study showed that people are remarkably cynical about strangers. Participants in this study thought that only 52% of the people they saw in the videos could be trusted to share their winnings. But the actual level of trustworthiness was a solid 80%. There’s the cynicism.

That cynicism was quickly broken down, though, by giving participants accurate feedback about others’ trustworthiness. People in the ideal world condition noticed that others could be trusted (they upped their estimate to 71%) and were also more trusting themselves, handing over the money 70.1% of the time.

People in the ideal world condition could even be seen shedding their cynicism as the study went on, becoming more trusting as they noticed that others were trustworthy. This suggests people aren’t inherently cynical, it’s just that we don’t get enough practice at trusting.

Self-fulfilling prophecy

Unfortunately we don’t live in the ideal world condition and have to put up with only receiving feedback when we decide to trust others. This leaves us in the position of trusting to psychology studies like this one to tell us that other people are more trustworthy than we imagine (or at least people who take part in psychology studies are!).

Trusting others is also a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, just as we find in interpersonal attraction. If you try trusting others you’ll find they frequently repay that trust, leading you to be more trusting. On the other hand if you never trust anyone, except those nearest and dearest, then you’ll end up more cynical about strangers.

Image credit: Scott McLeod

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