Monday, July 28, 2014

In Strangers We Often Trust Because We Think We Should and We Care What They Think

How likely are you to turn over money to a stranger? Archive images.

HEADS UP: In this second and final article about strangers, how feeling obligated fuels trust of those we don't know.

THE very reason mom admonished you not to talk to strangers is because you never know what people might do. Though last week, it was revealed that in some cases it is OK to talk to strangers, there is still a feeling that strangers can cause you upset or harm. (

In other words, strangers should not be trusted. Then why do we sometimes trust people we don't know? Is it because they seem trustworthy? The answer to the latter question is no, according to a group of researchers that has another theory, based on a few compelling experiments.

"Trust is crucial not just for established relationships, it's also especially vital between strangers within social groups who have no responsibility toward each other outside of a single, transitory interaction. eBay or farmers' markets couldn't exist without trust among strangers," said lead researcher David Dunning, a professor in the Psychology Department at Cornell University. "We wanted to examine why people, even those with low expectations of others, tend to trust total strangers more often than not.

To arrive at their findings, DD and his team undertook six experiments with 645 students from Cornell and Germany's Cologne University. In four of the experiments involving variations on a behavioral test known as the “trust game,” an average of 62 percent of the participants showed trust by giving money to a stranger (another student-participant) who could keep it or return a larger amount than previously given.

DD and his team published an article about their research, "Trust at zero acquaintance: More a matter of respect than expectation of reward," in a recent issue of the “American Psychological Association.”

Based on answers to a questionnaire given at the start of the experiment, only 20 percent of the students would have accepted the terms of the trust game.

One trust game scenario involved two participants who knew the rules at the start of the game and who remained anonymous after the experiment. One participant with $5 was asked whether s/he wished to keep the money or give it to a stranger (a second participant). S/He was also given to know that if s/he gave the money away it would be increased exponentially. Meanwhile, Participant No. 2 was given the option of keeping the entire increase or returning half of it to Participant No. 1. Sixty-seven percent of the time the give, take and give back was transacted.

In a coin-flip game, however, participants felt less obligated to trust. One participant was told that if s/he gave $5 to the other participant, the other would in turn flip a coin to determine whether to return $10. Only 44 percent was willing to part with the money.

"People felt more strongly that they should give the money when a reward depended on the judgment of the other person rather than a coin flip," DD noted. "This was the case even though the same participants reported earlier that they thought there was only a 37 percent chance they would get any money back in the trust game, compared to the 50 percent chance of return with a coin-flip."

In yet another experiment involving keeping $5, giving $5 away and trusting the recipient to share it, or flipping a coin for $5, most (54 percent) trusted and the least (22 percent) relied on the coin toss.

"Trusting others is what people think they should do, and emotions such as anxiety or guilt associated with not fulfilling a social duty or responsibility may account for much of the excessive trust observed between strangers every day," DD said.

What does this all mean? One thing that becomes clear is that to some extent we care about the good opinion of certain strangers whether we trust them or not.

It also means that we should continue to trust in mom's admonishment.

Visit to read "Trust at zero acquaintance: More a matter of respect than expectation of reward."


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