top of page
  • Writer's pictureCrone

Trust in the face

Just a brief one.

I listened to an interesting episode of ABC Nation Radio's All in the Mind show. It was all about - guess what? - trust!

My favourite contributor to the show was Professor Dr Anne Bockler Raettig. She's written a book, but so far it's only available in German. She has contributed to some research papers which consider theory of mind, empathy and compassion, which I will read when I have time. But essentially what she said on the show was that trust is integral to us functioning as a species and in societies.

And when you think about it, consider the great levels of trust we do have: that the engineers built that bridge to make it safe; that the chef in the restaurant isn't out to poison us; that the drivers will keep their cars on their side of the road; that the toaster we buy will toast bread; that the people we meet on the street won't kill us. Of course bad things happen, but the reason they're a shock is that they are so very rare.

It was Bockler Raettig who also stressed that treating people as trustworthy is a win win scenario. Say I meet a woman wearing a scarf for the first time. If I treat her coldly this will impact our interaction and it will be negative. Because of that, and the common bias of generalising, I will be inclined to regard all veil-wearing women as unfriendly. And this has wide implications.

All the speakers stressed the importance of diversity - of actually engaging with different people so that one generalises 'friendliness' rather than unfriendliness. It made me glad that I was brought up in different countries - Algeria and Saudi Arabia - and attended schools with people of all different nations. Had all my schooling been in Devon in the 1970s and 1980s, I might never have seen a non Caucasian person until I went to university.

The reason this matters is that we are inclined to trust more faces that look familiar to us. It's a heuristic with survival benefits in our savanna state but with disadvantages now.

It seems that we check out faces first to decide (though this decision occurs at an unconscious level). We 'like' - as well as features 'like ours' - smiles, not too many 'dominant' traits (I think square chins fits this bill), symmetrical faces and 'attractive' faces. But we also judge posture and movement. Heads titled to the side are a good sign - as the other seems to be listening. But heads jutting forward are perceived as threatening. We look for how smooth movements are because jerky movements seem unpredictable and thus potentially dangerous.

This reminds me of doing Tai Chi at the yard when I had horses. When I practiced, the horses would usually come near to me and doze. They found these calming, slow, smooth movements reassuring. It seems to offer them a sense of safety. Once, a fox came over and watched me too. He sat in the field and watched. I felt like St. Francis of Assisi.

Apparently, though we set more store by the faces, the other cues are more reliable. Our face reading is not that good - partly because we are prejudiced by our limited experiences of different people and partly because we rate 'irrelevant' concepts (like physical attractiveness).

Interestingly, they did discuss the impact that masks will make on people's face to face interactions. I am sure they said people would move focus from the mouth to the eyes - rather obviously - but I can't recall whether this would likely lead to better or worse 'raeding'.

One of the contributors, Dr Clare Sutherland, referred to Oxford's Trust Fellow. And I thought, 'What?' And this is she - Rachel Botsman, who has written two books about trust and various articles which I will read. Then maybe get in touch with her.

The show's web page linked to this article about trust in a business environment. I think it's worth a read, though the line it takes is, as you'll see, a little more cynical than mine. That said, maybe it's more pragmatic. There are a couple of sections I liked a lot. Here's the first:

Salting your world with lots of small trusting acts sends a signal to others who are themselves interested in building good relationships, and decades of research by social psychologist Svenn Lindskold and others have proved that it leads to more positive interactions. It works because it’s incremental (and thus manages the risks intelligently) and contingent (that is, tied to reciprocity). By taking turns with gradually increasing risks, you build a strong and tempered trust with the other person.

And this is the second:

To ensure that trust builds from small initial acts to deeper and broader commitments, it’s important to send loud, clear, and consistent signals. Some of the social signals we send are too subtle, though we don’t realize it. In one study I did exploring perceptions of reciprocal trust, I found that both managers and subordinates overestimated how much they were trusted by the people in the other category. This discrepancy in self-other perception—a trust gap—has an important implication: Most of us tend to underinvest in communicating our trustworthiness to others, because we take it for granted that they know or can readily discern our wonderful qualities of fairness, honesty, and integrity.

Sending strong and clear signals not only attracts other tempered trusters but also deters potential predators, who are on the lookout for easy victims sending weak and inconsistent cues.

There was more on this episode than I have managed to cover, so it's worth a listen.

2 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page