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How to Tell Who to Trust

We hate to think that our personalities are all based on a combination of genes and hormones, but that's increasing turning out to be true. For instance, the female reproductive hormone oxytocin (which men have too) may determine while some people are generous givers and others selfish takers.

In the April 27th edition of the Wall Street Journal, Paul J. Zak writes: "In our blood and in the brain, oxytocin appears to be the chemical elixir that creates bonds of trust not just in our intimate relationships but also in our business dealings, in politics and in society at large. When someone's level of oxytocin goes up, he or she responds more generously and caringly, even with complete strangers."

Knowing this, it would be nice if we could give someone a blood test for oxytocin before we did business with them or started up a romantic relationship, but arriving at a meeting with a hypodermic would show a lack of trust on OUR part, so we'll just have to continue to look for the clues (a smile? A hug?) Maybe what we need to do is to find out what INCREASES people's oxytocin levels (so there would be no more war).

How do we decide whether to trust somebody, anyway? We can't give them a blood test, so we rely on behaviors like avoiding eye contact and fidgeting as signals that a person is being dishonest. But until recently, scientists couldn’t identify a single gesture or expression that consistently says, "This person can't be trusted." But now that's changed: Researchers have identified four distinct behaviors that, together, appear to warn our brains that a person can't be trusted.

When a group of students underwent mock monetary transactions with one another, both in person and online, the students who met in person were far better at predicting the trustworthiness of their partner; that suggests that they were relying on visual cues.

In the September 11th edition of the New York Times, Tara Parker-Pope quotes psychologist David DeSteno as saying, "Lack of face-to-face contact didn't make people more selfish, but a person's ability to predict what their partner was going to do was greater face to face than online. There is something the mind is picking up that gives you greater accuracy and makes you better able to identify people who are going to be trustworthy." This could be one reason why internet scams seem to work so much better than "live" ones.

To find out what cues the players were responding to, the researchers filmed the students interactions and discovered four specific gestures that predicted when a person was less trustworthy: leaning away from someone, crossing their arms in a blocking fashion, touching, rubbing or grasping their hands together, and touching oneself on the face, abdomen or elsewhere. These cues did not predict untrustworthyness by themselves--they predicted it only in combination. And the students picked up on these cues.

As Parker-Pope quotes psychologist Robert H. Frank as saying, "Life is all about finding people you can trust in different situations."

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