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Who Should You Trust? Psychologists Have a Surprising Answer

What is the best indicator that someone you work with should (or shouldn’t) be trusted?


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Who can you trust? Photo from Reuers/Toby Melville.

Can you ever really know who to trust at the office?

While there’s tons of research on the actions and behaviors that create trust, few studies have successfully identified what makes some people more trustworthy than others to begin with. Research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology does just that, showing that “guilt proneness”—a person’s tendency to anticipate feeling guilty—is a surprisingly powerful indicator of trustworthiness.

The researchers, from the business schools at the University of Chicago, the University of Pennsylvania, and Carnegie Mellon, sought to predict trustworthy behaviors and intentions, especially within an organizational context. They set up economic games and surveys to measure traits like extraversion, openness, agreeableness, neuroticism, conscientiousness, and guilt-proneness.

In one exercise, colloquially known as the “trust game,” participants received money from a partner, and were then told the money had doubled in value. The participant is expected to return half of the earnings to their partner, though they can choose to keep the money for themselves. In another game, the participant could either lie or tell the truth about a set of information, which their partner would then rely on to make a decision. The participant is given a personal incentive to lie, but of course lying is untrustworthy in that it harms the partner, who is made to rely on false information.

In each exercise, the researchers found evidence that guilt-proneness (measured separately in questionnaires about how the subjects would feel in different scenarios, like hitting an animal with their car or missing lunch with a friend) positively and significantly predicted trustworthiness, far more than any other indicator of trustworthiness tested.

“We theorized that guilt-proneness predicts trustworthiness because people who are high in guilt-proneness feel more responsible for others,” says Emma Levine, an assistant professor at University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, “and this is exactly what we found.”

Guilt-proneness is not the same as feeling guilty, and this distinction is key to understanding why guilt-proneness is a positive trait, especially as it relates to trustworthiness.

“Guilt is a discrete, negative, self-conscious emotion that is evoked in response to wrongdoing. People experience guilt as a result of committing a transgression, and that emotional experience elicits reparative behavior,” Levine explains. “In contrast, guilt-proneness—[which] captures the anticipation of guilt over wrongdoing—causes people to avoid transgressing in the first place.”

We typically think about guilt as a signal that someone did do something wrong, which is why it’s seen as a character flaw. But feeling guilty about wrongdoing is a good thing, Levine says, whereas doing something wrong and not feeling guilty would be problematic, as it suggests a lack of remorse and no intention to repair your transgressions.

So, how does this research translate to work? Levine investigated organizational impact in her final study, where participants signed either a code of conduct asking them to act responsibly or read a set of instructions reminding them that most people in the study were selfish.

“In other words, we primed participants with either a sense of interpersonal responsibility or with selfishness,” she explains. “We found that participants who signed the code of conduct were much more likely to be trustworthy within the trust game. This result suggests that reminding employees of the importance of responsibility, and making codes of conduct salient, may help create a culture of trustworthiness.”

Though anticipating guilt can be uncomfortable, guilt-prone employees should remember that this trait will likely prevent them from committing violations at work. That means you may suffer a stolen lunch, but at least you won’t be the thief. In the long run, that’ll keep you far more satiated.

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This post originally appeared on Quartz and was published September 12, 2018. This article is republished here with permission.

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