Monday, December 26, 2011

People reestablish trust only when they believe in change

Trust is crucial in any close relationship.  When you make plans with a friend, you have to trust that he will show up at the appointed place at the appointed time.  When you make a business deal with someone, you have to trust that she will follow through with her end of the bargain.  Not everyone lives up to their end of every bargain, though.  What factors determine whether you will trust someone again?

This question was explored by Michael Haselhugn, Maurice Schweitzer, and Alison Wood in a paper published in the May, 2010 issue of Psychological Science.  These authors examined how people’s beliefs about trustworthiness affect whether they will trust someone again.

Some people hold the belief that being trustworthy is a trait.  (The authors called this belief an entity belief.)  When you believe that it is a trait, then you think that it is someone that people have or they do not.  If you have this trait belief, then when someone violates your trust, you will assume that they are not trustworthy in general, and will have a hard time trusting them again.

Other people hold the belief that people can become trustworthy depending on their desire and their circumstance.  (The authors call this belief an incremental belief.)  When you believe that circumstances affect trust, then you may find it easier to trust someone again even if they have violated your trust in the past. 

To examine this possibility, the authors had people read one of two essays.  One essay was designed to lead people to believe that behaviors reflect deep unchangeable traits.  The other essay was designed to reinforce the idea that behaviors are changeable. 

Then, people played a game involving trust with a partner.  They were told that the partner was another experiment participant in the next room, though actually the partner was a computer program.  In this game, people were given $6 and were asked whether they would give that $6 to their partner.  If they gave the money to their partner, then the money was tripled, so that the partner had $18.  The partner then had the option to give half the money back to the participant (so that each would end up with $9) or to keep all of the money.  In every round, the participant was told what their partner had selected that they would have done with the money if it was given to them.

People played 3 rounds of the game at first.  In those rounds, the partner never elected to return the money.  So, the partner was untrustworthy. 

After the third round, the participant got a ‘message’ from the participant apologizing for being untrustworthy and promising to be fairer in the rest of the game.  In the next three rounds, the partner always returned half the money.  Finally, participants were informed that they would play one last round of the game.  This last round was the one that was the main measurement in this study. 

Participants who read the paragraph suggesting that trustworthiness is a trait were much less likely to give money to their partner in the last round than participants who read that trustworthiness can be influenced by circumstance. 

This study highlights two important aspects of trust.  First, your beliefs about whether being trustworthy is a trait can be influenced by factors like an essay talking about behavior.  Second, that belief about traits affects whether you will trust someone who has violated your trust in the past.  

Ultimately, it is important to remember that circumstances often affect people’s behavior.  So you ought to take those circumstances into account when deciding whether to trust someone.