If you really think about it, trust is one of the most important aspects of our lives. Not just the trust we put in those close to us, but the trust we put in everyone around us. For instance, when we get in our cars every day, we trust the other drivers around us to not just lose it and yank the wheel into oncoming traffic. I know that is a funny was to approach the topic of trust, but it is true. If we didn’t trust others to maintain even a basic level of normalcy, we’d never leave the house.
Then comes a point where you have your trust violated. You swear up and down that you’ll never trust anyone again, but eventually it happens. So why is it that we, as humans, almost require the ability to trust in others?
According to Professor David Dunning from the University of Michigan, “Throughout our lives, sooner or later our trust is going to be violated in major ways, but there’s a social dynamic that pushes us to trust other people beyond the economics of the situation.” Mauricio Delgado and two other researchers set out to study this exact social dynamic in a study that was recently published in The Journal of Neuroscience.
The study involved playing a very common trust game involving money where the participant and a partner were both given a dollar. They are told that if they invest together, they will get a return of 3 dollars to split. If the partner chose not to invest and the participant did, the participant would be left with nothing. “The trust game has been widely used in behavior economics to measure how people interact—the amount of money someone can send to the other person indicates how much he or she trusts them,” says Delgado. The participants played the game 3 times: once with a friend, once with a classmate (not a close friend), and a computer.
What Delgado didn’t tell the participants is that the game was rigged. The partners of the participants would defect 50% of the time. This way, the only variable in the game was the social context of the partner/participant connection. What the research found was that people trusted their friend and classmates more than the computer, even though the defection rate was the same. Participants even went as far as to get mad at their friends when they defected. “Friends would come out of the experiment and yell each other,” Delgado says. The participants were told in a debriefing that the results were rigged, because according to Delgado, “We didn’t want to ruin any friendships.”
While the participants were playing the game they were also being monitored with an fMRI scanner. Researchers found that when the partners went along with the investment there was increased activity in the sections of the brain that are associated with rewards, namely the ventral striatum and medial prefrontal cortex. Delgado explains that “In different trials, the money doesn’t change—what changes is the context. And that tended to modulate the activity in these brain areas.” This, according to the researchers, shows that the result of the brain activity isn’t financial – it is social.
Dunning did a similar research study, but in his study found that although more than half of the participants chose to invest with a stranger – they only expected to see a return 45% of the time. Basically, people were trusting a stranger even at the risk of a loss as a method to develop a social bond based on mutual loss. Dunning’s study had a reciprocation rate of 80-90%, despite what participants expected their partner to do.
Dunning says, “There’s a moral norm here—you don’t want to insult the other person. If you don’t trust them, you insult their character. This prompts people to actually trust a stranger even when they never expect to see the money come back to them. That’s how highly people value relationships. And [in the big picture] we all profit from that emotionally, financially, and socially.”
Both of these studies raise an interesting point in human sociology: We need to trust others, even when it defies logic. It is part of how we bond with friends and even with strangers. It’s how we develop social bonds and move forward as a group. Consider that the next time your buddy asks you to borrow money.