Why do people distrust each other?

University of Cologne

Detlef Fetchenhauer has been researching the subject of trust for over ten years. He says: We are too cynical about others. We should trust each other more - in most cases it will be rewarded.

By Sarah Brender


I trust my girlfriend to keep my secrets to herself. You stand in line at the end of the long line in the supermarket - trusting that everyone else will do the same and not jostle. We give friends our address and telephone number - in the confidence that this data will not be misused. We change in the common locker room - trusting that no one will secretly take photos of us with their smartphones.

All of this often happens unconsciously in everyday life. Because trust is necessary in order to be able to cooperate: in intimate partnerships, in friendships, in the workplace. Trust plays a role in an infinite number of everyday situations. Parents would not be able to have their children looked after without trusting daycare staff. And we wouldn't get on a bus or train if we didn't trust the driving skills of the bus drivers first and foremost.

But what about ourselves? Are we trustworthy? Most people will answer "yes" for themselves. We tend to consider ourselves trustworthy - and also tend to trust people who are similar to us, says Professor Dr. Detlef Fetchenhauer. He holds a chair for economic and social psychology at the university. For example, if we have similar hobbies, jobs, and political attitudes, or if our facial features are simply similar, the likelihood of trusting the other person is higher.

Always a risk

Fetchenhauer has been working on the topic since 2008 and is fascinated by the diversity of the research field. »Trust is always something very fragile. If a person is trustworthy, it is worth trusting. If, on the other hand, it is not, then this can be exploited. This means that trust is very dynamic: What is the best behavior for me always depends on the other person, «says the economic and social psychologist.

If I lend someone money and he or she gives it back to me as agreed, this positive experience strengthens mutual trust. On the other hand, if I borrow money and don't get it paid back, I probably won't want to lend the person again anytime soon. It is very likely that the situation of broken trust can put a strain on the relationship, especially with larger sums of money. But Fetchenhauer is encouraging, because his research shows: We should trust others a lot more.

We mostly underestimate the trustworthiness of others

Fetchenhauer and his team also research human trust with the help of test subjects. Using game theory experiments, they not only ask whether the tested people give confidence, but can also check whether they themselves would have been trustworthy.

The »trust game« used here works like this: Two people interact completely anonymously and only once with each other. Person A receives 5 euros from the investigator and has two alternatives: they can keep the money for themselves or pass it on to person B. In this case, the amount quadruples to 20 euros. Person B has two options for using it. She can either return half of it to person A or keep the entire 20 euros for herself.

Even if this situation may seem very artificial at first, it is very well suited to measure trust and trustworthiness. The repeated result of various similar experiments shows that people underestimate trustworthiness on a cognitive level. This means that they rate the trustworthiness of others as less good than it actually is. So basically we seem to be too cynical towards others.

Interestingly, however, it is also evident on the behavioral level that this skepticism is not reflected in action. Because in dozens of random samples, the test subjects were suspicious, but on the behavioral level, trust is still placed in others. Why is that? Fetchenhauer explains this with a social norm that obviously shapes us very strongly: reciprocity.

The principle of reciprocity in the case of trust means that it is impolite not to trust others. Because a lack of trust would express distrust of the other.

These results are robust, emphasizes Fetchenhauer, and the internalized norm of reciprocity evidently has a strong effect: It doesn't even need a counterpart who notices the lack of trust. Anonymity makes no difference, as Fetchenhauer's experiments show. "We find it uncomfortable to ourselves to be someone who doesn't trust others," he explains.

Trust can also be exploited

This point is of course convenient for fraudsters. They try everything to appear as sympathetic as possible to the person they want to take advantage of, compliment them, try to distinguish themselves as supposedly trustworthy with small favors - and rely on being able to claim trust in the sense of the principle of reciprocity. A strongly anchored, social norm is thus exploited.

Fetchenhauer knows that successful fraudsters often have impressive intuitive knowledge and social skills. An example often cited by those who have been duped is getting to know each other on the Internet. With the aim of taking advantage of a lonely person in search of a partner, scammers often follow certain patterns. After trust has been built up online through chats and messages, maybe even phone calls, getting to know each other in "real life" fails. A common scam is to make excuses to request money to make the meeting possible. After a long lead-time and having gained trust, you feel uncomfortable to show mistrust and so many people often transfer the amount, despite an uneasy gut feeling, so as not to endanger the relationship that has been established. You do not want to appear too suspicious and fall into the trap.

Trusting or suspicious?

Even if it can be exploited: trust is important and without trust a lot becomes more difficult. But what can people do if trust is fundamentally very difficult? What causes a "disorder of trust"?

According to Fetchenhauer, there are very few findings on this. There is evidence of the importance of genetic factors, but rather few. Learning experiences alone cannot explain general trust problems either. “Some keep falling on their faces and keep on trusting. The cognitive working model with regard to trust is relatively stable and resistant to change. «People seem to either have a predominant trust in others or to trust them less. Behind each is their own model of the world that someone has made for themselves. People with a stable worldview bring trust in the world. Extremely suspicious people, on the other hand, distrust others and have the feeling that this has been proven - but the other way round, it is the same for trusting people.

Cologne researchers also collect trust values ​​across the country. According to surveys, Germany is in the upper middle range of mutual trust in a global comparison. According to this, there is even more trust in other people in countries like Denmark, Finland and Norway, but less trust in southern and eastern European countries. According to Fetchenhauer, such survey results also have to do with how social life works in the country. He says: "In countries with a high level of mutual trust, people are actually more trustworthy and societies function better than in countries with low trust."

You have to risk it again and again

Detlef Fetchenhauer's own way of dealing with trust has changed as a result of his scientific examination of it. He says: "I believe that I have actually become more trustworthy through my occupation with the topic."

As an example, he cites a nice personal learning experience: His cleaning help needed 500 euros at short notice and shortly before the end of their work with him and asked him to borrow this amount. From an economic point of view, it was nonsense to give the person the money. Especially since there was no written contract and therefore no possibility to ever enforce the repayment. »I had a queasy feeling, but then thought:› I always tell people that they have to trust more. Then I should do it myself! '”So he gave the person the money - and his trust was rewarded. The money was paid back as discussed.

“That was a very, very positive experience,” says Fetchenhauer and adds: “I try to take my own research seriously, to trust people more and to incorporate it into everyday life for myself personally. I would also like to pass this on to others. «

Professor Dr. Detlef Fetchenhauer has held a chair for economic and social psychology at the Institute for Sociology and Social Psychology (ISS) at the economic and social science faculty since 2004. In his research he focuses on the determining factors of prosocial and antisocial behavior, economic lay theories and evolutionary psychology.