Peter H Brown Clinical Psychologist

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You Can Trust Me More Than You Can Trust Them: Cynicism & The Trust Gap

Read the original research paper HERE (PDF)

Credit: Jeremy Dean from Psyblog

How do people come to believe that others are so much less trustworthy than themselves?

Much as we might prefer otherwise, there’s solid evidence that, on average, people are quite cynical. When thinking about strangers, studies have shown that people think others are more selfishly motivated than they really are and that others are less helpful than they really are.

Similarly in financial games psychologists have run in the lab, people are remarkably cynical about the trustworthiness of others. In one experiment people honored the trust placed in them between 80 and 90 percent of the time, but only estimated that others would honor their trust about 50 percent of the time.

Our cynicism towards strangers may develop as early as 7 years old (Mills & Keil, 2005). Surprisingly people are even overly cynical about their loved ones, assuming they will behave more selfishly than they really do (Kruger & Gilovich, 1999).

What could create such a huge gap between how people behave themselves and how they think others behave?

Trust me

People often say that it’s experience that breeds this cynicism rather than a failing in human nature. This is true, but only in a special way.

Think about it like this: the first time you trust a stranger and are betrayed, it makes sense to avoid trusting other strangers in the future. The problem is that when we don’t ever trust strangers, we never find out how trustworthy people in general really are. As a result our estimation of them is governed by fear.

If this argument is correct, it is lack of experience that leads to people’s cynicism, specifically not enough positive experiences of trusting strangers. This idea is tested in a new study published in Psychological Science. Fetchenhauer and Dunning (2010) set up a kind of ideal world in the lab where people were given accurate information about the trustworthiness of strangers to see if that would reduce their cynicism.

They recruited 120 participants to take part in a game of economic trust. Each person was given €7.50 and asked if they’d like to hand it to another person. If the other person made the same decision the pot would increase to €30. They were then asked to estimate whether the other person would opt to give them their half of the total winnings.

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The participants watched 56 short videos of the people they were playing against. The researchers set up two experimental conditions, one to mimic what happens in the real world and one to test an ideal world scenario:

1. Real life condition: in this group participants were only told about the other person’s decision when they decided to trust them. The idea is that this condition simulates real life. You only find out if others are trustworthy when you decide to trust them. If you don’t trust someone you never find out whether or not they are trustworthy.

2. Ideal world condition: here participants were given feedback about the trustworthiness of other people whether or not they decided to trust them. This simulates an ideal-world condition where we all know from experience just how trustworthy people are (i.e. much more trustworthy than we think!)

Breaking down cynicism

Once again this study showed that people are remarkably cynical about strangers. Participants in this study thought that only 52 percent of the people they saw in the videos could be trusted to share their winnings. But the actual level of trustworthiness was a solid 80 percent. There’s the cynicism.

That cynicism was quickly broken down, though, by giving participants accurate feedback about others’ trustworthiness. People in the ideal world condition noticed that others could be trusted (they upped their estimate to 71 percent) and were also more trusting themselves, handing over the money 70.1 percent of the time.

People in the ideal world condition could even be seen shedding their cynicism as the study went on, becoming more trusting as they noticed that others were trustworthy. This suggests people aren’t inherently cynical, it’s just that we don’t get enough practice at trusting.

Self-fulfilling prophecy

Unfortunately we don’t live in the ideal world condition and have to put up with only receiving feedback when we decide to trust others. This leaves us in the position of trusting to psychology studies like this one to tell us that other people are more trustworthy than we imagine (or at least people who take part in psychology studies are!).

Trusting others is also a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, just as we find in interpersonal attraction. If you try trusting others you’ll find they frequently repay that trust, leading you to be more trusting. On the other hand if you never trust anyone, except those nearest and dearest, then you’ll end up more cynical about strangers.

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Read the original research paper HERE (PDF)

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April 1, 2010 Posted by | Books, brain, Cognition, Health Psychology, research, Resilience | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Only As Young Or Old As You Feel?: When Does Youth End & Old Age Start?

Source: University of Kent, UK: 15 March 2010

Professor Dominic Abrams and Dr Melanie Vauclair from the School of Psychology  at the University of Kent will present findings from the European Social Survey’s research project ‘Attitudes to Age in the UK and Europe’ during an event at City University, London, on Monday 15 March.

Titled What do the British think about… ageism, political institutions and welfare?, this Economic and Social Research Council  (ESRC) event will consist of an information seminar and an online demonstration of how to access and use the European Social Survey (ESS) data archive, currently comprising 21 European countries and more than 40,000 respondents.

With a steadily growing proportion of older people in the UK and Europe, the 2008 ESS included a module that examined how people perceive and feel about their own and other age groups.

Professor Abrams explained: ‘The survey showed that age prejudice – being treated as ‘too young’ or ‘too old’ – is perceived to be a serious or very serious issue by 63 per cent of respondents, so it is obviously important to know what these age labels mean to people’. To find out, the survey asked when does ‘youth’ end and ‘old age’ begin? For the UK, the average response to this question was that youth ends at the age of 35 and old age begins at 58.

However, the survey also revealed that people’s judgements depend strongly on the ‘age of the beholder’. On average, the youngest respondents (15 to 24-year old) judged that youth ends at 28 and old age starts at 54, whereas the oldest age group (80 and older) judged that youth ends at 42 and old age starts at 67.

In the UK, there is a gap of almost 40 years between young people’s judgement of the end of youth and older people’s judgement of the beginning of old age. However, more startlingly, there is a gap of only 12 years between older people’s judgement of the end of youth and younger people’s judgement of the start of old age.

In general, men regarded the end of youth and start of old age to begin two years earlier than women did.

There were also large differences between European countries. Youth was perceived to end earliest among respondents in Portugal (at the age of 29) and latest by those in Cyprus (at the age of 45). Portugal scored lowest for the belief when old age starts (at the age of 51), whereas Belgium ranked highest (at the age 64).

The findings illustrate that when people discover another person’s age, their judgement of whether that person is young or old is highly subjective and this may have important implications in influencing people’s assumptions about the person’s responsibilities, rights and capabilities.

Professor Abrams said: ‘This evidence shows that what counts as young and old is very largely down to the age of the beholder.’

Amongst other findings, the survey also showed that 28 per cent of UK respondents reported that they had been treated with prejudice because of their age in the past year and that the youngest age group were more likely to report experiences of prejudice than any other. Across the European countries in the survey, age prejudice was most widely reported in Finland (47 per cent) and least so in Cyprus and Portugal (19 per cent). The UK ranked 16 out of 21 countries in regard to this question.

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March 17, 2010 Posted by | Age & Ageing, Cognition, Education, Seniors, Social Psychology | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment