How To Know Who You Can Trust: 6 Secrets From Research


Trust — humanity’s favorite high-wire act.

What’s the reason most people cite for wanting to leave their job? Not trusting their employer. And what quality do you value in a friend more than any other? You guessed it: trustworthiness.

But a 2021 poll showed that 18 percent of American adults said they only have one or zero people they can trust for help in their personal lives. It’s a sad “I’ll laugh about this in therapy” kind of statistic. Makes you nostalgic for the days when the biggest act of treachery was someone stealing your favorite crayon.

But our well-being is always dependent on the support and cooperation of others. Trust is essential – however, it always contains an element of risk.

The good news? Research shows in many ways, trust is more common than you think. It’s our default. But it’s also very fragile.

So what can we do about it? How can we better find trust, create trust and be seen as trustworthy?

We’re gonna get help from two experts in the field. Dr. Peter H. Kim is a professor of management at USC and the author of “How Trust Works.” David DeSteno is a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, and the author of “The Truth About Trust.”

Let’s get to it…


Competence And Integrity

People who are competent can be trusted because they know that they’re doing. People with integrity can be trusted because they’re honest. Great combo.

These are the big things others look for and we should look for when it comes to trust — but that wacky human brain of ours processes these two signals very differently.

When we see someone do something well even once, we assume they’re competent at it. And we’re even willing to discount them screwing it up once later because, hey, nobody’s perfect.

Integrity, however, is the reverse. We intuitively think that people who possess it won’t act dishonestly. So one slip up is enough to make us lose faith that they’re a decent person.

By looking for competence and integrity over time, we can get a good sense of who to trust. Problem is we’re not very good with that time part. We usually make trust judgments quickly and intuitively.

You make up our mind about someone in 100 milliseconds. Yeah, read it again: 100 milliseconds. And what happens when you’re given additional time? You merely become more convinced you’re right.

And crazy things can influence us when it comes to trust. How attractive someone is, whether they’re the same gender as you are, whether someone blushes, and the state of your ever-changing mood all affect whether you trust somebody. (In some situations you trust people more just because they have a beard.)

“Trust your gut,” they say. But it’s the same gut that tells me buying a family-sized bag of chips is a good idea because I’ll “save some for later.”

That said, going with your gut is better than not trusting anyone. You can tell Nobel Peace Prize winners from America’s Most Wanted at a rate much better than chance. More often than not for first impressions, you can trust your gut.

Now a rate “above chance” is not all that spectacular unless you’re playing blackjack all night. So should we just evaluate people based on their reputations? Ummm…


Reputations Aren’t Reliable

The research shows reputation only matters when it comes to trust if the circumstances are pretty much the same.

If the stakes increase dramatically, that’s where trust goes to play hide and seek and reputations become about as significant as the “g” in lasagna. When the payoffs of violating trust increase, suddenly everyone’s moral compass starts spinning like a game show wheel.

Desteno notes, “When it comes to trust, then, the question we ask shouldn’t be: Is he trustworthy? It should be: Is he trustworthy right now?”

So the smarter move is not to rely on reputation but to examine current motives and incentives.

Yes, this is enough to make Machiavelli go, “Wow, that’s depressing.” So what should we do?


Incentivize Trust

Trusting people is a lot like doing yoga – it seems like a good idea until you’re suddenly in a position you can’t get out of.

Human morality is best scientifically examined as a trade-off between short-term and long-term goals. Stealing pays off now but you might go to jail later. Thinking long-term means you don’t go to jail but since the thieves just stole all the food, you may starve.

May sound a bit cold and mechanical but we do better when we incentivize trust: reducing the situational factors that might tempt even good people to cheat or betray and upping the things that make people think long-term.

In negotiation contexts they refer to it as “extending the shadow of the future.” In a one-off context, it might be rational (but unethical) to cheat. But if the contract is for three deals, suddenly it makes a lot more sense for them to behave – at least on the first two deals. And in that time maybe trust begins to grow. If you can demonstrate that there’s more value in the future, even otherwise shady people are more likely to play nice.

The goal isn’t to turn every relationship into a cold, clinical contract but to help establish some guardrails that make it clear it’s best to think long-term and keep behavior on the straight and narrow.

This is all good defense. What’s good offense?


Extend Trust Early

It’s not a good idea to warily eye everyone like they’re potential contestants on “Who Wants to Betray Me Next?” Studies show expecting others to be selfish can be a self-fulfilling prophecy: “those who expect people to act selfishly, actually experience uncooperative behaviour from others more often.”

Meanwhile, displaying trust in others from the get-go can create the opposite type of self-fulfilling prophecy: people want to prove your trust in them to be justified. Research shows seemingly irrational displays of trust often prove quite rational because it leads others to trust you and not want to let you down.

But once we get into the nitty-gritty of an ongoing relationship, what signals will people look for in you to decide if you’re trustworthy? And by the same token, what should you look for in others?


To Be Trusted, Do This

As mentioned earlier, competence is a good thing. And a solid meta-signal of competence is displaying self-control.

Study subjects consistently placed more trust in people who did not look exhausted and overworked. Intuitively, they grasped that those who didn’t seem disciplined were less likely to focus on the long-term over the short-term.

There are a number of other factors research says we should display (and look for) when it comes to trust:

  • Discretion: You’ve got friends who promise to keep your secrets, only to spill them like a human WikiLeaks the moment they’re three martinis deep. Being discrete may seem obvious but what’s funny is that keeping secrets is so uncommon that in their studies, researchers Cross and Parker frequently heard people talking about calling information “secret” to make certain it would be spread widely.
  • Match words and deeds: Be consistent. Imagine a world where if someone said, “I’ll call you back in five minutes,” they actually did. Not in five hours. Not never. But in five actual minutes. The fabric of society as we know it would unravel. People would be wandering the streets in confusion, not knowing how to handle this newfound reliability.
  • Set realistic expectations: If you don’t, people may feel they have to bend the rules to do what they said they’ll do.
  • Communicate often and set clear boundaries: If you set boundaries, it’s clear when people are (and are not) violating them. “Please note: I require eight hours of solitude after social events, and if you try to make me share my fries, I will bite you.”
  • Say “I don’t know”: This might seem ironic after all the emphasis on competence but “I don’t know” shows a commitment to the truth; a badge of honor in a world brimming with half-baked facts and overcooked opinions.
  • If you’re the boss: Holding a position of authority changes the dynamic. Make sure to occasionally step outside of your role, to make your decisions fair and transparent, and to be someone who holds the untrustworthy accountable.

On the flip side, what affects your ability to smartly trust or distrust others? Your physiology. Do your best to stay calm and assertive. When you’re angry or nervous, you’ll be less trusting, even when that’s a bad idea. And when you’re too calm you may trust someone it’d be better not to.

No matter what, we all make mistakes. So what’s the best way to apologize?



Research shows there are six components to a good apology: an expression of regret, an explanation, an acknowledgement of responsibility, a promise not to repeat the offense, an offer to repair the damage done, and a request for forgiveness. The more of the six an apology contained the better recipients perceived it to be.

But one thing is more important than all of the above: sincerity. Without that, none of the six matters. A lack of sincerity isn’t a red flag; it’s a parade of red flags, with a marching band and baton twirlers.

One more thing to note is the distinction between failures of competence and failures of integrity. For competence-based mistakes, apologies are great. But when the failure is one of integrity, apologies can actually make things worse. When you apologize for an integrity-based violation, it’s like admitting, “Yes, I am exactly as terrible as you feared, and here’s my signed confession.”

Screwups happen. But don’t be a jerk. People are far less likely to forgive you.

Okay, we’ve covered a lot. Time to round it up, and we’ll learn the best overall perspective to take when it comes to trust…


Sum Up

Here’s what you need to know about trust…

  • Competence And Integrity: The two big trust signals. But we usually go with our gut. Far from perfect, but better than treating everyone like they’re contestants on “America’s Next Top Traitor.”
  • Reputations Aren’t Reliable: When the stakes are higher than Snoop Dogg on a space station, people recalibrate their moral GPS. Look at motives and incentives, not history.
  • Incentivize Trust: Shift the circumstances to make good behavior more favorable and bad behavior less enticing.
  • Extend Trust Early: By simply deciding not to view everyone as a potential scam artist or a future character in a true crime podcast, you’re activating their desire to be their best. It’s like reverse psychology without the reverse part.
  • To Be Trusted, Do This: Display self-control. “Trust me,” your demeanor says, “I haven’t thrown a Monopoly board in a fit of rage for at least a decade.” Be discreet, consistent, set boundaries and communicate.
  • Apologies: Offering up a “sorry” so thin it could be used as tracing paper isn’t worth the effort. Be sincere or don’t bother. Apologies help when you made a mistake. But for an integrity-based violation, they can be a net negative. You’re now a Disney villain.

A lot of the above probably isn’t very reassuring. Well, this might make you feel better: when all is said and done, it’s better to trust people. When researchers compared people who trusted too much to those who trusted too little, the former came out ahead. Yeah, the former occasionally got taken advantage of but the latter missed out on so many opportunities that it wasn’t worth it.

People who give others the benefit of the doubt are both happier and healthier. In fact, high-trusters are actually less gullible and better at lie detection. Remember the tip about extending trust early? These people naturally do that without thinking and very often reap the benefits. (They also ensure that the world doesn’t devolve into a giant, suspicious, eye-narrowing contest.)

And in our personal relationships, it’s not just trust that’s good — downright positive illusions about the people we love turn out to be justified. Most moments of perceived untrustworthiness are mistaken. When we have positive illusions about people – we think they’re even better than they are – it really helps us let little things go without suspicion or resentment. It’s like beer goggles but for personality.

Having people you can really trust in your life is like finding out your crappy old car is actually a Transformer. We all need people we can rely on to not only support us, but also be honest with us – even when it hurts. They give you that look. You know the one. The “Are you seriously going to wear that?” look. We all need people we can rely on to tell us the truth.

It’s worth the risk for those moments of connection, those shared laughs over something utterly stupid, those midnight conversations that make you feel like you’re not alone in this whirling chaos we call life.

Trust me on that one.


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