The rest is trust: cognitive errors make it easy to misjudge trustworthiness

Trust, as any negotiator knows, is critical. Its presence gets commitment; its destruction sours deals. But trusting and being trusted is a delicate balance: effective negotiators know to “be trustworthy, not trusting.” No one wants to be fooled at the negotiating table.

In “Confidence game,” journalist Drake Bennett, writing for the Boston Globe, provides a fascinating look into the related issues of trust and trustworthiness. Trust is essential to much more than negotiation:

…human society would not function without trust. We loan things to friends, we take to the road assuming our fellow drivers are not suicidal, we get on airplanes piloted by people we’ve never seen before, and, when asked to sign something, we rarely read the fine print. If people stopped to double-check the background and references of everyone they had an interaction with, social life would slow to a standstill.

Although one would naturally assume that doubt would be our first reaction, trust is in fact our default response. And all too often, we decide to trust based on the flimsiest of evidence:

When deciding who to trust, the research suggests, people use shortcuts. For example, they look at faces. According to recent work by Nikolaas Oosterhof and Alexander Todorov of Princeton’s psychology department, we form our first opinions of someone’s trustworthiness through a quick physiognomic snapshot. By studying people’s reactions to a range of artificially-generated faces, Oosterhof and Todorov were able to identify a set of features that seemed to engender trust. Working from those findings, they were able to create a continuum: faces with high inner eyebrows and pronounced cheekbones struck people as trustworthy, faces with low inner eyebrows and shallow cheekbones untrustworthy…

Just as in other cognitive shorthands, we make these judgments quickly and unconsciously – and as a result, Oosterhof and Todorov point out, we can severely and immediately misjudge people. In reality, of course, cheekbone shape and eyebrow arc have no relationship with honesty.

But we are led astray in other ways, and it’s not just a trustworthy face that can persuade us:

Another set of cues, and a particularly powerful one, is body language. Mimicry, in particular, seems to put us at our ease. Recent work by Tanya Chartrand, a psychology professor at Duke, and work by Jeremy Bailenson and Nick Yee, media scholars at Stanford, have shown that if a person, or even a computer-animated figure, mimics our movements while talking to us, we will find our interlocutor significantly more persuasive and honest.

These studies remind me strongly of the work of Robert Cialdini, who has revealed how susceptible we are to the weapons of influence and how easily trust can be gained by those who understand how to manipulate human behavior.

As skilled negotiators know, be trustworthy, not trusting.

                        author

Diane J. Levin

Diane Levin, J.D., is a mediator, dispute resolution trainer, negotiation coach, writer, and lawyer based in Marblehead, Massachusetts, who has instructed people from around the world in the art of talking it out. Since 1995 she has helped clients resolve disputes involving tort, employment, business, estate, family, and real property… MORE >

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