How Do You Measure Who You Can Trust?

March 5, 2014 Katharina Lochner
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The Cues We Use to Uncover Integrity

This is a question that comes up frequently. You might ask yourself the question when closing a deal with a new business partner or when recruiting employees. If the business partner or employee really proves to be trustworthy, your confidence in them will pay off. But if not, you will be at a disadvantage. Thus, who can you trust and how can you know whom you can trust?

In an article in the Harvard Business Review social psychologist David DeSteno from Northeastern University in Boston addresses these questions. With respect to the first question – who can you trust – he comes to a somewhat disillusioning conclusion. 90 percent of people will cheat if they believe they will not get caught. Integrity is not stable, but rather depends on the circumstances. For example, increasing status and power are related to decreasing honesty and reliability. However, this does not mean that rich people are generally less trustworthy than poor people. Any momentary feeling of higher status, even if experimentally manipulated and just for a very short period of time such as a few hours, will make people act in a less trustworthy way.

We reported on this before: the situations we are in have a great influence on how we behave. However, in this post we also outlined that psychologist Philip Zimbardo identified a few critical aspects of situations that make “bad” behaviour more likely to appear. His research also shows that there are certain personality characteristics that make people less susceptible to the influence of the respective situations. This is for example what our squares assessment does. It measures how likely someone is to fall for the cues of certain situations and show risky or unethical behaviour.

However, you will not always have such a questionnaire at hand. This takes us to the second question addressed in the introduction: how can you know whom you can trust? It seems that there are several cues of body language that, taken together and only taken together, can be indicators of a person’s trustworthiness: hand touching, face touching, crossing arms, and leaning away from the partner. Subconsciously most humans make use of these cues.

In a video Professor DeSteno explains an experiment they conducted on this topic. They found that individuals trust others more when acting face-to-face as opposed to chatting via computer, and that they subconsciously use exactly the four mentioned gestures to assess the other person’s honesty. Thus you may as well trust your gut feeling when assessing another person’s reliability. Additionally, David DeSteno suggests to be generous to the other person because this will make the other feel grateful, which in turn lowers the risk of them cheating on you. Generate a feeling of similarity, which yields the same effect. And, finally, do not threat the other person to punish dishonest behaviour because this will reduce their intrinsic motivation to be honest.

About the Author

Katharina Lochner

Dr Katharina Lochner is the former research director for the cut-e Group which was acquired by Aon in 2017. Katharina is now a researcher and lecturer at the University of Applied Sciences Europe in Iserlohn, Germany. In her role at cut-e, she applied the research in organizational and work psychology to real-world assessment practice. She has a strong expertise in the construction and evaluation of online psychometric tools.

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