The Science of Trusting: How Can You Get Someone To Trust You

By Wray Herbert

When Joshua Prager was 19, he was an accomplished athlete, and proud of his well-trained physique. His young life was full of promise. That was before an out-of-control truck driver, carrying a four-ton load, crashed into his mini-van and left him a hemiplegic. Following 21 years of difficult recovery, Prager, a writer and journalist, decided to return to Israel to seek out the man, Abed, who had changed his life forever. His moving and popular TEDTalk tells the story of that meeting, and raises complicated questions about human trust and forgiveness.

There was no question about Abed’s guilt in the crash, which also killed one passenger. Such recklessness is the ultimate trust violation, and recovering trust under such circumstances can be a tricky business. While some people will never offer or accept amends, it appears that others are able with time to forgive. But why is that? Is there a fundamental psychological difference between those who accept reparations readily — or even seek them out — and those who do not? And is peace possible without genuine remorse?

A study from the University of Pennsylvania offers some insight into the psychology of trust — both the violation of trust and its repair. Psychological scientist Maurice Schweitzer has been exploring whether our basic beliefs about moral character influence trust violations and forgiveness. Schweitzer wanted to see if it’s possible to modify those beliefs — and in doing so help people to become more forgiving and more peaceful.

The scientists recruited a large group of volunteers to play an elaborate game involving breaches of trust and reparations. But before the game started, they primed the volunteers with different beliefs about moral character. Some were nudged to believe that people can change — that people can and do become more ethical and trustworthy if they sincerely set their minds to it. The others were primed with the opposite belief — basically that scoundrels will always be scoundrels. This core belief is surprisingly easy to manipulate, and the researchers did it here simply by having the volunteers read essays arguing for one belief or the other.

The trust game that followed goes like this: You have $6, which you can either keep or give to another person. If you give it away, it triples in value to $18, which the recipient can either keep or split with you, $9 apiece. So initially giving away the $6 is obviously an act of trust. But in order to study trust recovery, the scientists put the volunteers through several rounds of the game. In the early rounds, the recipient (actually a computer) violated trust by keeping the $6 a couple of times in a row. After these violations of trust, the computerized recipient apologized and promised to be more trustworthy from then on. Then there was one final opportunity to be either trusting or not.

So does believing in the possibility of change shape people’s ability to forgive — and trust again? It does, dramatically. As the scientists reported a couple years ago in the journal Psychological Science, they easily eroded trust and they also easily restored it — but only in those who believe in moral improvement. Those who believe in fixed immoral character, incapable of change, were much less likely to regain their trust after they were betrayed.

These results have implications for anyone trying to reestablish trust — in business, in love, and yes, even in cases of extreme personal violation such as Prager’s. Prager says that all he wanted, in making the journey to Abed’s home, was some genuine remorse, a simple “I’m sorry.” He didn’t get that, not even close. Indeed, all he got was Abed’s revisionist version of history and his own self-centered tale of woe. But in the end, Abed’s delusions seem to be irrelevant to Prager’s well-being. He clearly believes that humans are capable of moral transformation — even if Abed is not — and it appears that this belief is enough to bring him renewed trust in humanity, and some peace.

Follow Wray Herbert’s commentaries on Twitter at @wrayherbert.