#18 Assessing Trustworthiness – Using Your Head Or Gut?


In determining whether to trust and how much to trust someone we don’t know, we humans rely on several factors. If we don’t have access to information from others on someone’s reputation, we are often stuck with having to make a determination from being with that person. I find this subject a bit of quagmire to wade into, but an interesting one.

We like to think that we can determine someone’s trustworthiness by consciously observing him or her as we interact. We fool ourselves. Research indicates that our ability to determine if a stranger is lying is almost nil. This does not mean that we are completely inept, but that we tend to look in the wrong places; for example, particular gestures, facial expressions, or voice tones on their own are not reliable indicators.

Making a determination of trustworthiness is challenging. Human beings have evolved the capacity to conceal intentions well, otherwise, we would be walking targets for those wanting to take advantage of us. Non-verbal communication is rich – no question about that. But, detecting trustworthiness only through conscious observation of non-verbals is fraught with liabilities.

Paul Ekman is one of the greatest contributors to emotional research and a leading psychologist of the 20th Century. Although somewhat controversial, some of his early research demonstrated that humans show the same facial expressions for the same emotions independent of their culture. Later, after working with 20,000 test subjects, he contended that the vast majority of people (all but 50 of his test subjects) could not detect from observation if another was lying. However, he said that with special training one could make use of micro expressions – split second facial expressions – the way his 50 exception subjects had.

More recently David DeSteno, a Northeastern University psychologist, describes his research in his 2014 book The Truth about Trust. DeSteno chucks Eckman’s micro-expression research on the pile of failed attempts to determine how people may detect dishonesty in a stranger. Apparently the Transportation Safety Administration spent 400 million dollars on a dishonesty detection training program for its personnel that later turned out to be a completely unreliable (and probably contributed to thousands of false accusations).

Photo of a man's face with the question around trustworthiness: Trustworthy or not?

Trustworthy or not?

DeSteno recounts the elaborate care taken by his own multidisciplinary research team. They realized early on that the only way to isolate various non-verbal cues from others was  to use a robot in trials to confirm hypotheses. (The Truth About Trust is a good read if you are interested in the design and progression of psychological research.)

DeSteno’s team seems to have established some body language indicators that we humans use to both inadvertently communicate and unconsciously detect lack of trustworthiness. These findings differ from previous results in two important aspects. Firstly, subjects made the discernments unconsciously. Secondly, they were made in aggregate from a cluster of unconscious observations.

He found that certain gestures used in combination, are both transmitted and read as lack of trustworthiness.  All four had to be used in conjunction with each other. They are: leaning backwards, crossing arms, touching face with hands, touching hands with hands. When someone uses all four gestures during a conversation humans unconsciously read the person as less than forthright and respond accordingly by placing less trust in the person exhibiting the behaviours.

How helpful the information is remains to be seen. Just because there are indicators of when someone is being less than forthright does not mean necessarily that possessing knowledge of the indicators will be particularly helpful. Remember, the observations were made by subjects unconsciously.

As far as I know, this is up-to-date research information on determining trustworthiness by “reading” others while in their presence. DeSteno’s advice is don’t rely on the observation of any single behaviour; instead, use your gut, but not exclusively.  More often than not our unconscious processes provide us with useful information that we should pay attention to. Being able to find alignment between gut feelings and conscious analysis is ideal. But, if you are caught between the two, both DeSteno’s research and anecdotal evidence suggests that you may be better off trusting your gut.

DeSteno has some advice for using conscious analysis and further instructions on how to use your gut effectively, both of which I will write about in the next edition of The Conflict Journey blog.

Until then, cheers!





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2 Responses to #18 Assessing Trustworthiness – Using Your Head Or Gut?

  1. Gail says:

    What a fascinating post! The photo of the man really made me consider the question of trustworthiness. Of course we have no behaviour to judge, only a static picture, but we do tend to make instant judgements when we look at people especially if we haven’t interacted with them. Back to the photo. I realized that I had instantly made a judgement of him as untrustworthy, I guess because of his slight grimace, a feeling of grimness and perhaps even menace. And yet as I enquired further, I realized this could be a man of integrity, a man full of life experience who would give me the clothes of his back and who I could trust completely. Your post has certainly given me a lot to consider!

    • Gordon White says:

      Hi Gail,
      Yah, the research seems to indicate that much of our evaluation of trust is unconscious or semi-conscious. Ideally, we want to get all of our conscious and unconscious faculties working towards the same ends – making wise evaluations.
      Thank you for your comment,

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