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Ties That Bind Psychologist David DeSteno untangles matters of trust, from some common misconceptions to questionable cues

What are some of the myths surrounding trust?

Oftentimes, we assume someone is trustworthy or not based on his or her reputation. If that were such a great predictor then we wouldn’t be surprised so often. Science tells us that everyone has his price—whether he knows it or not. We each have two types of mechanisms: those that favor short-term gain and those that favor long-term gain. If you’re thinking short-term, you’ll take whatever you can get and run. However, long-term gain requires you to be more community-oriented to get what you want in the end. Whether you are trustworthy or not in any given moment is determined by which of these two urges is motivating you. 

What traits should you look for when determining if someone is trustworthy?

We tend to think about trust in terms of integrity, but there’s another component that’s equally as important: competence. When you’re deciding whom to trust in a certain situation, consider what might be required of that person. For example, I trust my best friend, but I wouldn’t want him operating on me because he’s not a surgeon. Ask yourself not only if the person is honest and fair, but also if he can competently do what you need him to do. My friend may have every intention to help me, but without the competence to do so, the end result will still be failure. 

Can I trust my boss?

People in positions of power—socioeconomically or otherwise—are more likely to be untrustworthy because they can be. Trust involves making yourself vulnerable to others. The more power you have, the less you rely on others and the less vulnerable you are.

Is it possible to base trust on body language?

Yes, it is possible, but in the past we’ve been looking for a single telltale marker, like shifty eyes or a fake smile, neither of which is telling on its own. Recent studies suggest that only when four particular cues are used in sequence do they predict when a person is going to be untrustworthy. Those are crossing one’s arms, leaning back (or orienting yourself away from someone), touching your face, and fidgeting with your hands. When used together, they say, “I’m probably going to cheat you.”


David DeSteno is the author of The Truth About Trust: How It Determines Success in Life, Love, Learning, and More



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