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Why do we trust the wrong people?

Why do we trust the wrong people?

Dit artikel door Drs. Henri Geerts is gepubliceerd in Asset Magazine.

Why do we trust the wrong people?

geplaatst: 24-05-10

Last week we could read a fascinating article in the daily newspaper NRC Handelsblad (Friday 16-4). What made this article draw our attention?

Mr. Jan Dirk Paarlberg - one of the Netherlands most influential real property owners - told in court a few years ago he was short of cash (1.5 million Euros) and therefore made a false document (a so called escrow agreement) to convince his SNS-Bank he was worth this credit. He reflected afterwards in court that "he has been stupid" and he pleaded guilty for this fraud. However, the most fascinating part of the interrogation had still to come - and mr. Paarlberg wasn't as communicative as before. The prosecutor asked some questions like: "Who made this document?", "Was it normal in the culture of his enterprise that his employee's made false documents?" and "Did he use this document also in negotiations with other banks?"

Mr. Paarlberg did not want to give answers to these questions and became very silent. The trial has not come to an end yet. But we can smell ashes from this case, and they go high like the ashes from an Islandian vulcano. Mr. Paarlberg was in a position as a business man with a high status and also with high credibility. He seems to have lost it. But from his case the question arises 'How does credibility function?' How is it possible that people commiting fraudulous tricks capture our trust almost instantly - and why are we so happy to give it to them?

For the first answers we can look for the research-results of behavioural scientists. They tell us that there are a lot of very small elements which trigger our first impression. Like: in which setting do we meet people (if someone is in a bank to ask for 1.5 million euro, the probability is bigger that he will get it than in a street or a railway station). According to Nikolaas Oosterhof, a Dutch scientist at Princeton University, we have a first-sight trust of a person through a quick snapshot of his or her face. By studying people's reaction to a range of faces, Oosterhof and his colleague Todorov were able to identify a set of features that seemed to engender trust. Faces with high inner eyebrows and pronounced cheekbones struck people as trustworthy, faces with low inner eyebrows and shallow cheekbones untrustworthy. As said, these opinions about somebody's trustworthiness are given in splits of seconds. We make these judgments quickly and unconsciously - and therefore we can make the wrong judgments. Because, in reality, cheekbone shape and eyebrow arc are not related to honesty. Next to facial expressions and characteristics there is another powerful set of cues in body language. Especially mimicry, the way in which people copy our behaviour, makes them more trustworthy because they put us at our ease. There are quite a few psychologists who have shown that if a person mimics our movements while talking to us, we will find him or her significantly more persuasive and honest. One experiment was done in 1965. In it, shoppers at a paint store were approached by a research assistant who offered them advice on what type of paint to choose. He told half of the shoppers that he had bought the same bucket of paint that they were looking to buy; the other half he bought a different amount. For the greatest part, the first group took his advice very serious, and the second rejected it. Something as trivial as buying the same-sized bucket of paint, seems to forge a trustworthy bond with a total stranger.

I think we have to combine all these psychological insights with a more sociological point of view. We need to consider the actual social world, our society, as limited in terms of too little time and too little information coming from far too many different senders to create a well reasoned judgment. Just before the start of the economic crisis Francis Fukuyama wrote his book 'Trust'. It tells us about the crucial role of trust in the economy and in doing business. He calls this 'the social capital' of a country which involves the political system and how it functions, the way healthcare and health insurance are organised, the way its school system is equal and offers possibilities for poor people etc. etc.

And I think we have to go one more philosophical step further: people deserve our trust when they work for the social capital of a society. Whether this is the case for mr. Paarlberg still has to be proven...

Drs. Henri Geerts, Academic Forum