That position of weakness is precisely what allows society to
function, says Paul Piff, PhD, a social psychologist at the University
of California, Berkeley. “Trust is a critical thread in the social
fabric,” says Piff, who has studied how wealth affects prosocial
behaviors such as compassion, generosity and trust. He’s found
that the more a person has, the less trusting he or she becomes.
In one such study, Piff recruited men and women across
the country to complete a survey for a chance to win points
that could earn them a monetary reward. The volunteers then
played an online game with an unknown partner. Trusting
that partner could result in the player earning more points and
potentially more money. But there was a risk that trusting the
mystery stranger could backfire, and the player could go home
Piff and his colleagues found that participants with lower
socioeconomic status were more trusting than their wealthier
counterparts, regardless of age or ethnicity (Journal of
Personality and Social Psychology, 2010).
As it turns out, wealthier people aren’t only less trusting;
they may also be less trustworthy. In a related study, Piff found
that upper-class individuals were more likely than people with
low incomes to lie, cheat and take valued goods from others
That may be because as people accumulate wealth, they
focus more on their own goals. Along the way, their need for
social relationships — and the trust that goes along with those
relationships — dwindles, Piff explains. “Trust is something that
emerges between people when cooperation and collaboration
are critical,” he says.
Trustworthiness even appears to be written in our genes.
Previous research has shown that people tend to behave in more
prosocial ways when they have two copies of a gene variation
involved in processing oxytocin, the so-called “love hormone”
that regulates bonding and maternal behavior.
To find out how that genetic signature might affect behavior,
and whether outside observers can pick up on such behavior,
Aleksandr Kogan, PhD, of the University of Cambridge, and
colleagues showed observers silent 20-second video clips of
people listening to their (off-screen) lovers describe a painful
personal experience. Then the observers rated the video subjects
on kindness, compassion and trustworthiness. The observers
judged people who had two copies of the genetic variation to
be among the most trustworthy — and trusted those with the
opposite genetic signature the least (PNAS, 2011).
A face you can trust
Other researchers have tried to parse the signals people send
that broadcast their trustworthiness. Nikolaas Oosterhof,
PhD, at Dartmouth University, and Alexander Todorov, PhD,
at Princeton University, have studied how people make snap
judgments from faces alone. They’ve found
people perceive an upturned mouth and
wide eyes as signaling trustworthiness,
while a downturned mouth and eyebrows
angled down at the center telegraph
unreliability (PNAS, 2008).
DeSteno has studied the nonverbal
behaviors that indicate whether a person
can be trusted. First, he discovered
that people more accurately judged
the trustworthiness of a partner in an
economic game if they could see the other
player, suggesting that they were picking
up on some kind of behavioral cues.
Setting out to identify those cues, he
found that single actions weren’t terribly
predictive. “If someone is leaning away, is
it because they are distancing themselves
from you, or does their back hurt? You
can’t really tell when it’s one cue,” he
says. But he found that a set of four cues
together — leaning away, crossing the
arms, touching the face and fidgeting with
the hands — advertised untrustworthiness.
The more often people performed this set
of actions, he found, the less trustworthy
their behavior was.
However, DeSteno wanted to be sure