This work adopts an interdisciplinary approach to examine trust, a topic with far reaching consequences. Knowing when to trust others is an essential skill, but little is known about the mental processes that lead to trust. This research introduces a model to explain the decision making process underlying trust. There are two critical factors a person considers when deciding to trust: the potential outcomes (the costs and benefits of trusting) and the perspective of the trusted party (how these people are likely to act if I trust them). The central assumption of the model is that decision making is primarily egocentric: people focus on the potential outcomes while perspective-taking plays a limited or secondary role.

Two experiments examine both trusting behavior and the process of decision making. Participants will play a series of economic trust games. The relevant information in these games will be initially concealed and participants will need to actively search in order to learn the consequences of their decisions. The researchers record and analyze the order and duration in which people search for different types of information. The first experiment will test if the decision making process is egocentric; the second experiment will attempt to reduce this egocentrism using a perspective-taking manipulation.

Project Report

Trust is an important part of social behavior: managers trust their employees to do their jobs; consumers trust that goods bought online will work as promised; and negotiators trust each other to act in good faith. This research contributed to our understanding of trust by examining how people search for information in dilemmas of trust; we investigated the underlying process of decision-making that leads to behavior, and tested the relationship between cognitive processes and behavior (whether or not people trust). To accomplish these goals, we conducted two laboratory studies of decision-making using economic games of trust. In these games, information about potential decisions was concealed inside of boxes, and participants had to actively search (using the mouse) to learn about their options. Thus, we were able to study the order and duration of how trustors searched for information. The results of our first experiment suggest that trust decisions occur in two stages: during the first stage, trustors focus on self-relevant information (what might be gained or lost from trust). The second stage of decision-making involves predicting how the other party, if trusted, will respond. Critically, we found that this second stage did not always occur, and even when it did, it was less intensive than the initial (self-relevant) stage. Moreover, the overemphasis of self-relevant information had consequences for behavior: people who focused on self-relevant information were less likely to trust, and missed out on potential profits. Motivated by these results, we conducted a second experiment to investigate whether encouraging perspective-taking (thinking about the other person’s point-of-view) would increase the likelihood of trust. Our first experiment suggested that people do not trust others because they neglect the second stage of decision-making (predicting the other person’s response). Hence, we designed an external manipulation of perspective-taking that encouraged participants to think more about the other player. We found that encouraging perspective-taking increased trust, but only for optimistic trustors (those who expected the other party to reciprocate). Pessimists, when encouraged to consider the other person’s perspective, showed no similar increase in trust. The results of our research suggest that there are two critical steps to encouraging trust in consumers or organizations: The first step is to encourage perspective-taking; we found consistent results that decision-makers approached trust egocentrically, sometimes completely neglecting the other person’s point-of-view. However, we also found that encouraging perspective-taking, by itself, is insufficient to engender trust. Perspective-taking only leads to trust when the decision-maker is optimistic about the other person’s intentions.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
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Robert E. O'Connor
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Brown University
United States
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