|Q| Why did people trust Bernie Madoff? |A| Our research suggests that Madoff may have deliberately or inadvertently taken advantage of the automatic trust process regardless of whether his family members and business associates were victims or confederates. Even if he didn’t seem trustworthy, the fact that his closest relatives and associates invested with him could have provided a subtle, non-conscious signal that he was actually trustworthy. After all, foxes never prey near their dens, and thieves only steal far from their homes. Additionally, the constant associations of Madoff’s name with all sorts of philanthropic works, and other subtle cues, may also have encouraged people to trust when they shouldn’t have.
To explore trust, we did an experiment that used common cues naturally associated with people’s previous trusting or distrusting relationships–the names of their friends. We used the names of our research participants’ friends (or enemies) to subliminally prime them before they had a chance to trust or not trust someone they had never met.
In our simulation, the participants saw their friends’ names repeatedly, for fractions of a second, so briefly that they could not recognize them, before they played the classic Trust Game. In the game, they each started with $5 and could send any part of it, from nothing to all $5, to another participant whom they would never meet. The ”receiver” (who didn’t actually exist) would have full knowledge of the sender’s endowment and the amount the sender had sent.
The participants understood that the receiver would be getting three times the amount they sent and would then freely choose how much of the tripled amount to return to the senders. The receiver could send back anything from nothing to the entire tripled amount. In this boiled-down interaction, sending money was risky but increased joint gain; this accorded with the common definition of trusting behavior–a willingness to accept vulnerability based on positive expectations of another’s intention or behavior that is not under one’s control.
The results were stunning. After seeing subliminal presentations of names of people they liked or people they trusted, our participants trusted anonymous strangers by sending them an average of nearly 50% more than people who saw similar presentations of names of people they didn’t like.
In addition, nearly 50% of the participants who saw–albeit unconsciously–names they liked or trusted sent their entire endowments to strangers, compared with 15% of the participants who were subliminally primed with names of people they distrusted. These subliminal cues also increased their expectations that the stranger would reciprocate their trust by responding in ways that would best serve their interest.
The automatic trust process that this reveals has important implications for investors, consumers and business executives. Business relationships form at an increasingly rapid pace, and trust-related choices, such as financial investment decisions, can be made with the click of a mouse. People who can gain financially from others’ trust can deliberately or inadvertently take advantage of this process.
This same process can also increase expectations of reciprocity. People in our studies who were subliminally primed by trust-related cues also expected that their interaction partners would be more trusting in return. Thus if you take advantage of the automatic trust process, you may be penalized in the future if you don’t meet the higher, subliminally induced expectations of those who trust you. It seems clear, even without addressing the potential moral issues that arise, that people who try to stimulate automatic trust for their own benefit should ensure that they have the means and the desire to reciprocate if they want to enjoy long-term success.In some situations, everyone can benefit from an automatic trust. When subliminally activated trust is not intentionally exploited, it can lead to an increase in the likelihood of mutually beneficial trust, much like a self-fulfilling prophecy. In a classic 1977 experiment conducted by the social psychologist Mark Snyder and his colleagues, participants behaved in a more friendly and trustworthy manner after they interacted with others who had been led to believe that they were friendly and trustworthy. Thus, the subliminally activated trust may help boost the mutual trust development process and lead to mutual benefits that wouldn’t be attained without it. Put simply, our findings suggest that trust may not always develop via an incremental, evaluative process. Social and relational cues may have a strong but subtle impact on people’s important financial and management choices. Understanding the non-conscious nature of this process can help you take advantage of its benefits while avoiding its downsides–and avoiding the next Bernie Madoff, too.