Study Shows Why We Trust Certain People

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There is a growing canon of life philosophies and literature that tout trust as a beaming character jewel. “To be trusted is a greater compliment than being loved,” one reads; “He who does not trust enough will not be trusted,” another gushes to assert.

But this quest for assigning credibility to people, places, and things is hardly a conscious act. The question of how people decide to trust has been the focus of a growing body of psychological and neuroscientific research — impacting the way social, personal, organizational, and even national relations are fostered.

So when someone says “I blindly trust you,” chances are they don’t know what they’re talking about. There is barely anything blind or incidental about whom we trust. There is fascinating biochemistry at play here, that positions a brain chemical as the protagonist influencing most social bonding and affiliation. Oxytocin, also dubbed the “love hormone,” is related to our willingness to trust. The work of neuroeconomist Paul Zak, at Claremont Graduate University, is seminal here: his experiments revolve around oxytocin and how it impacts both how we trust and how trustworthy we ourselves are.

There’s a bunch of philosophies, sayings, and stories out there that emphasizes on how important trust is. Some say it’s even better than being loved. They claim that if you don’t trust others, they won’t trust you back. But deciding who to trust isn’t something we usually think about consciously. Scientists are studying how our brains decide who to trust, and it’s affecting all sorts of relationships, like friendships, work, and even how countries get along.

When someone declares they trust someone “blindly,” they might not realize how much goes into that decision. It’s not just luck, randomness, or a blind leap of faith that decides who we trust. There’s actually some science behind it. Our brains are doing a lot of work behind the scenes, especially a chemical called oxytocin. It’s often called the Love hormone because it’s linked to feelings of trust. Scientists like Paul Zak at Claremont Graduate University have been studying oxytocin and how it affects trust, both in how we trust others and how trustworthy we are.

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In the ongoing quest to understand trust, scientists have devised intriguing experiments to show this connection. Let’s look at one from a 2018 study: Scientists had 49 people play a game where one person was a broker and the other was a trustee. They worked together to make money by investing in each other. But there was a catch: one person could steal all the money. Surprisingly, some groups invested heavily, despite being strangers.

Why Did Some People Trust so Easily?

The core dynamics may vary, but the core question remains: why do people entrust strangers? Prior to the game, some participants who inhaled a nasal spray with oxytocin ended up trusting more (suggesting the hormone made them trust more and worry less about being tricked) and investing more money compared to others who took a placebo or nothing at all. 

Before the game, some of the players sniffed a nasal spray with oxytocin. Those who sniffed oxytocin ended up trusting more and investing more money compared to those who got a fake spray. This shows that oxytocin made them trust more and fear less.

Neuroscience also tells us that humans are built to trust. One study found that when people trusted each other more, a part of their brain called the caudate nucleus, which deals with pleasure, got more active. This suggests we have an innate inclination to trust, that trusting others feels good to our brains, so we’re naturally drawn to it.

As social creatures, humans have learned to work together and trust each other in mildly stressful situations. Scientists are now focusing on understanding what triggers or blocks the release of oxytocin, the trust-related brain chemical. These key factors play a role: 

As scientists learn more about what triggers or blocks the release of oxytocin related to trust, they’re also figuring out what helps or hinders the release of this brain chemical. These factors play a role: 

High stress: it hinders oxytocin, making it tough to trust in tense situations.

Moderate stress:  while moderate stress actually promotes trust, and helps oxytocin flow, making trust easier. 

Estrogen and testosterone:  Having more estrogen helps oxytocin flow too, which may explain why women tend to trust more than men. But testosterone does the opposite – it blocks oxytocin and makes trusting harder.

Although Recent research has raised questions about oxytocin’s role in trust. For example, Adam Waytz, a professor at Northwestern University, wonders if studies showing oxytocin’s link to trust can be repeated reliably over time.

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Research Shows That the Ability to Trust is Hard-wired in our Brain

Meanwhile, Roderick M. Kramer, in his study “Rethinking Trust,” for the Harvard Business Review, suggests that trust is deeply ingrained in us from our genes and early experiences, helping us survive as a species.

Instead of focusing solely on brain chemicals, psychologist Adam Waytz, looking through a psychological lens, offers a different take on trust, highlighting four important qualities: integrity, competence, benevolence, and predictability.

“Benevolence means: Is this person kind? Integrity means: Is this person ethical? Competence means: Can this person do what they need to do? And predictability means: Does this person act in a way I can expect?”

These factors deeply influence relationships, whether at home or work. Trust is often seen as a key ingredient for personal bonds, strong connections, and organizational success. Individually, the benefits are significant.

Trusting more has been linked to increased productivity, less burnout, higher life satisfaction, reduced stress, and more energy.

Also, in hard times such a pandemic, when we’re relying more on digital connections, traits like kindness, honesty, and ethics become even more crucial. Psychologists and a number of researchers have found that physical touch, like a friendly pat, can boost trust. But in a virtual world, we depend on different cues to gauge trust.

When trust is broken, it hits us hard. Betrayal shakes us up, making it tough to trust again. This relates to oxytocin—when trust is broken, it triggers stress, affecting future relationships.

In addition, while we may want to trust others, real trust takes time to build and must be earned. As Roderick M. Kramer puts it, our urge to trust is natural, but genuine trust is something that’s proven over time.

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