Can we trust people? admin December 16, 2020

Can we trust people?


You’re buying a car, you’re lending a friend some money, you’re negotiating a contract with a supplier – they’re promising lots of great things but are you being naïve?

Anyone who has read my work or been on one of my courses will know I’m a firm believer of the win-win approach to negotiation. But, of course, it has an in-built flaw – what do you do if you are dealing with someone who you can’t trust?

You’d never play win-win with a crocodile, would you? Well, you might but don’t expect them to return any favours, its just not on their agenda.

So trust is a critical part of the equation.

And in recent times, trust has become a major area of scientific interest. Whether we are talking about game theory, anthropology, psychology, economics or biology, lots of cross-field work has been done to explore the nature of this invisible force that holds our society together.

A great book called “The Moral Molecule” by Professor Paul Zak, one of the founders of the field of neuro-economics, looks at the chemical oxytocin, sometimes known as “the bonding chemical” and perhaps best known as the factor that makes the mother bond with her new-born baby. Oxytocin, it turns out, is the biological substrate for trust.


What can we learn from lobsters?

Lobsters, we know, have a very hard and knobbly shell to protect them. There is one problem: it stops them having sex. It’s a bit like humans trying to have sex whilst wearing a deep-sea diving suit. It’s not easy. Apparently.

Now, if you’ve seen my video on lobsters you’ll know that, to get around this, the female sheds her shell when she is ready to reproduce. However, this has its own problem – now she is vulnerable and is no longer protected. And we all know unprotected sex can have all kinds of consequences. For female lobsters, unprotected sex might, at worst, mean being eaten by her lover. Doesn’t usually happen with humans; does, though, with lobsters.

So how does the safe-sex-minded lobster get around this? Well, she uses chemical weapons: she sprays a pheromone into the male lobsters cave which makes him less aggressive. She can now get out of her shell and do the do, safe in the knowledge he won’t attack her before she grows another shell.

Wouldn’t it be great if humans had a chemical that made other people become less aggressive so we could trust them more in important situations? Well, we do. The chemical female lobsters use is the lobster version of oxytocin.


And what can we learn from prairie voles?

Prairie voles are small American rodents, they  are monogamous and the males are very caring for their partner. Meadow voles are very close cousins but one of the few differences is that the males are far less loyal and tend to sleep around like, erm, rabbits.

It turns out that meadow voles have far less oxytocin receptors in their make-up than do prairie voles which explains the difference in behaviour. How do we know it is down to this? Well, inject meadow voles with oxytocin and the caddish studs suddenly become all caring and cuddly, sticking with their partner even when all sorts of tasty, up-for-it female meadow voles are paraded in front of them.

Girls, you’re interested now, aren’t you?!


But can it help you in your negotiation?

And from crustaceans to rodents to humans, it so happens that what works with lobsters and voles, works with humans too, bonding mother to baby and lover to lover.

But can it help you in your negotiation? Yes, it can. Using classic economists’ tools such as the Prisoners’ Dilemma, the Trust Game and the Ultimatum Game, it has been shown that higher oxytocin levels will make the individual more co-operative and more generous.

Let’s take the Trust Game. In this, Person A is given $10 and is told they can give some of that to Person B. Anything they give will gets tripled in value and Person B can then decide to keep it all or give some back. Person A has to trust Person B’s generosity.

Zak’s experiments showed a direct correlation between their levels of oxytocin and both their trust and their generosity. That is, Persons A gave more money when sprayed with oxytocin and Persons B, when sprayed, returned more too. Importantly, it doesn’t turn people into gullible fools: Persons A would not give more if they were told Person B was untrustable or a computer-based random number generator.

With the Ultimatum Game, a similar construct to the Trust Game, Zak showed generosity increased by 80% under the influence of oxytocin.

Beyond negotiation it has some impressive effects too, by the way. It makes us happier and live longer. Higher levels of the chemical stimulate serotonin and dopamine production, which are the feelgood chemicals. And when Zak performed blood-tests on centenarians, he found significantly higher background levels than normal. He also claims it is the basis of economic wealth. His earlier work as an economist identified trust as one of the key critieria for a prosperous community (trust allows trade which leads to prosperity) and trust has oxytocin as its chemical basis.

It makes you richer, happier and healthier? Hmm, where can I buy this thing?!


What inhibits oxytocin?

So if it’s such a great thing, what causes its levels to go up or down and is there anything we can do to increase it in our negotiating counterparty?

Firstly, some things have a negative impact. Stress and competitiveness have both been shown to reduce oxytocin levels since they increase testosterone levels. Testosterone is an oxytocin inhibitor, so anything which boosts this will impair trust.

As does studying economics! Robert Frank, Professor of Economics at Cornell, conducted studies on students of economic faculties across the United States. He found 1st years were overwhelmingly trusting, 4th years not very at all. He repeated the experiments on students of other courses and was unable to find a similar effect. (Zak and Frank suggests this is because the concept of self-interest is so core to the subject as currently taught). Lesson: don’t trust an economics graduate!


How can we make people more trustable?

But if you want to increase levels of oxytocin in someone else, it turns out that one of the simplest ways is to act trustingly towards them. When a Person B was shown trust they returned 50% more than when simply given money randomly by a computer. What’s more it was a linear correlation. The more money given (ie, the more they were trusted), the higher the oxytocin surge in the recipient.

Touch also works. As does anything that engenders connection or empathy. Rapportful chat, a moving story, friendly games, gossip, dance, having friendly people around, having pets around – they have all been shown in different studies to raise oxytocin levels. As has identification with an in-group.  They may not all be possible in your deal but the more of this kind of thing, the better.

You can even do it through diet: chocolate, red wine, fatty foods, capsicums, comfort foods all have an effect. Or language: Nobel laureate Vernon Smith showed that if you used the word “partner” rather than “opponent”, trust levels doubled. In fact, anything that increases the ‘us-ness’ of it, emphasising collaboration and shared goals, has a big impact on oxytocin levels.

Now, breast-feeding and orgasms are two of the most powerful mechanisms found but I am guessing that they’re probably not appropriate in your negotiations.


Be the example

So, let’s go back to our opening question: Can you trust people? The answer is: It depends! Whoa, see the swerve!

But there is good news, you can increase someone’s trustworthiness and there are known mechanisms for doing so. And it’s actually very simple – be the example of the behaviour you want to see. If you want them to be comfortable with you, be comfortable with them; if you want them to be trustable, be trustable; if you want them to be rapportful, be rapportful.

There is bad news, too, though. It puts the onus back on us! Ouch!


  • August 20, 2012, 10:27 am

    Very interesting, sorted out that tricky trust question. Can you do one on the meaning of life next, please?

    • August 20, 2012, 11:34 am

      Well its true, there may be a little bit more to be said on trust. But you’ll have to buy the book for that! And meaning of life on its way…

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