People 'Trust' Strangers Out of Respect, Moral Obligation, Not Perceived Trustworthiness


Jorge Quinteros/Flickr

Why do we trust strangers? Perhaps we don't in any meaningful way. A new psychology study suggests that placing trust in strangers may be more a function of feeling morally or socially obligated to do so than genuinely believing them to be trustworthy. We "trust" so as not to disrespect someone's character, the researchers say. 

"Trust is … vital between strangers within social groups who have no responsibility toward each other outside of a single, transitory interaction," said lead study author and Cornell University professor David Dunning, citing eBay and farmer's markets as examples.

"We wanted to examine why people, even those with low expectations of others, tend to trust total strangers more often than not."

The researchers recruited a total 645 students—about half from Cornell and half from Germany's Cologne University—for a series of trust experiments. The results, published in the American Psychological Association's Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, suggest trust between strangers is less rational judgement call and more norms meet neuroticism.

"Trusting others is what people think they should do, and emotions such as anxiety or guilt associated with not fulfilling a social duty or responsibility may account for much of the excessive trust observed between strangers every day," said Dunning. 

In one trust game (a variation on one from behavioral economics studies), participants were given $5 and two options: keep the $5 or give it to an anonymous stranger. If they chose to give, the sum would be increased to $20 and the recipient could keep the whole $20 or give $10 back to the first person for being a good sport. Participants were also asked to rate how choosing to give versus keep the $5 would make them feel and whether they thought they should do so.

A clear majority (71 percent) decided to give the $5 to the stranger—a number far greater than would be expected based on students' expectations of peers returning the money, researchers note. Not surprisingly, those who felt they should trust the stranger to kick back some cash were more likely give them the $5, even if they didn't necessarily want to do so.

In another experiment, participants faced a similar setup, but this time the recipient of $5 would flip a coin to determine whether some of the money was kicked back. When the outcome was based on chance rather than trust, only about 44 percent gave the $5 away.

In the first experiment, "participants wished to avoid showing disrespect for the moral character of their interaction partner," the researchers concluded. "When we removed the issue of the partner's character by making the partner's response depend on a coin flip rather than on an intentional choice, participants were much less willing to make themselves vulnerable to the other person."

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  1. People 645 students?about half from Cornell and half from Germany’s Cologne University?’Trust’ Strangers Out of Respect, Moral Obligation, Not Perceived Trustworthiness

    1. exactly

      “Bullshit scientific study yields bias-affirming results”: Film At 11

      Put said college kids in some ghetto in and see how long their trust criteria last. All of this stuff is entirely contextual; “controlled experiments” are by their nature environments where the participants *have already granted* trust.

      1. Yeah I agree. If I go to a pub I’m trusting strangers to serve me beer or cook my food. I’ll probably even leave my food or drink unattended to go use the restroom which requires some degree of trust. The same couldn’t be said of leaving my cell phone or wallet unattended. I do that even though those material items are less valuable then my health. We calculate the risk some stranger will try and do us harm with no motive as less then they would steal from us. So yeah, trust is much more complex than this game.

        1. I know who’s getting roofied at the next all H&R get together…

          1. Step 1: Roofie AlmightyJB
            Step 2: Gay Butt Stuff
            Step 3: ?????
            Step 4: Profit!!!!

            1. If by ???? you mean film and post on xtube with a small fee for view.

              1. I don’t know if today is the best day to try and organize the Reason SoCal happy hour/eating contest. We’re scaring people.

          2. If I don’t remember it doesn’t count:)

            1. There’s the healthy attitude about non-consensual, drug-facilitated sex I’ve come to know and love while posting here.

    2. Agreed that studies like this can’t tell you much about people in general. Conditions are always too contrived and the samples too small and not a good cross section of people.

      But their conclusions ring true to me, at least. I mostly trust people because it seems like the decent thing to do and I want people to trust me. Sort of a golden rule sort of thing.

      Of course, in a different context, I might feel differently. I live somewhere where I can mostly trust people. I never lock my house or my car, for example. Obviously in a lot of places, you don’t do that if you don’t want your shit stolen.

  2. These dollar amounts seem too little to be meaningful.

    1. WHAT!? Are you implying the same amount I randomly buy people a beer with in bars is somehow, “inconsequential”!? And I thought I was a moral paragon.

      That said;

      I think how and where people grow up, and the typical expectations they have, bear significantly on this

      ‘Giving money to a stranger’ isn’t necessarily trust = in fact, I’d guess a majority of the money handed to vagrants in NYC is often the reverse = money given to people you specifically DO NOT TRUST in effort to distinguish yourself as a person this individual ‘should maybe NOT stab at random’ in the near future.

      1. But the test wasn’t about ‘giving money to a stranger,’ it was ‘giving money to a stranger in expectation of potentially getting something back – more akin to a transaction with a street vendor than charity to street beggars, which of course isn’t a question of trust

    2. If you’re in college, $10 is two cases of beer.

      1. If you’re in college, $10 is two cases of beer.

        Only the beers you drink when you want to sober up at the end of the night though.

        1. Why would you want to sober up?

          1. That’s rather the point, isn’t it?

            When I was in college drinkable beers usually hovered around $12 for a 12-pack on sale at RiteAid.

            Anything less than that and there had better be a beer pong involved.

            1. I went to my parents house to watch the Kings game yesterday, and all they had was Pacifico.

              I had 6 of them, and nothing happened.
              Reason #1 why I drink IPAs.

              1. I was out at Soap Lake and drinking all day, and I bought some shitty-ass light beer because I thought that was a good way to not get too loaded. I ended up drinking myself sober and had to go to my room and get some IPAs that I had there just to get my buzz back. Horrible.

                1. That sounds terrible. I hope you have a healthy support network to help you through such difficult times.

                  1. It haunts me to this day, jesse. Just like your mom.

                2. I gave Jesse half of my last 22oz Hairy Eyeball on Friday. I regret it. If I had that half beer in front of me right now, it would probably be the best beer of my life.

                  1. It was quite tasty. Thank you for that sacrifice for my benefit.

              2. and all they had was Pacifico.

                A friend brought a case of Pacifico over and I have no idea what to do with it. I would’ve tried to foist it on the gays this weekend in Palm Springs, but I didn’t want to make a bad first impression.

                1. Well, some of them might be watching their figures, and Pacifico is a light enough beer.

                  Why don’t you explain your vacation? I think the commentariat will find it very interesting….

                  1. Why don’t you explain your vacation? I think the commentariat will find it very interesting….

                    My conversation with BuSab earlier covers most of it.

                    Clothing optional all male resort. I no longer have discernible tan lines, and I have several offers for places to stay if I ever go to NYC, SF or Bristol.

          2. Sobriety makes it easier to dispose of dead bodies.

            1. See, my cousin and I would go out driving like bats out of hell as a way of sobering up. Almost flipping my car would definitely take the buzz off.

              1. I drove drunk across a golf course once. You have to be on a road or parking lot to get a DUI in the state of CA.

                The legislature never anticipated my stroke of genius.

                1. We kept more to high school fields and other manicured greens of that type. I’m still amazed we never even came close to getting caught, but I can probably thank the very low cop presence where I grew up for that.

                2. Did you add that stroke to your score?

        2. $10 getting two cases was incredibly cheap back in the late 1980s, when I was in college. It’s got to be insanely cheap in today’s dollars. Like beer-vacuumed-off-the-floor cheap.

          1. Hamms, or Olympia.

            1. Or Reinier.


            2. I remember well a Stroh’s coupon that got you $5.00 cases of their swill. That was considered insanely cheap back in 1987 or so.

              1. The best price I remember was about $8 for a case of Milwaukee’s Best bottles. And in CT that included the bottle deposit so when you went back for your next case you just rolled the bottle deposit over too. In Jersey I remember getting Schlitz really cheap too, possibly $4/12 pack.

                1. When I was at college in CT, you could still get cases of Pabst or Schmitz for about $8/case of the heavy bar bottles. Better than the Beast, anyway.

          2. Walgreens has their own label of beer now.

            That is all that needs to be said about that.

              1. So does Trader Joe’s. Actually their No Name beer isn’t bad for being $2.50/6 pack. Good pool beer.

                1. TJ’s has good fake mexican beer too (most of it is El Salvadorian). I can’t remember the brand name I get, but it is in a clear bottle with a sea turtle on it. Good, bitter beer. Great with hot sauce.

          3. $10 is cheap for two pints today.

            At least at the places I get beer.

      2. It was when I was in college in the 70’s…nowdays more like a 12 pack of cheap stuff.

    3. They college kids seem bad at game theory.

      Lets look at the first game.

      Player A has two choices, keep $5 guaranteed, or give it away and have a chance to get $10 instead. If the chance to get it back is greater than 50%, then he should give it away.

      Player B can keep $20 or keep $10 and give $10 away. If its a single incident anonymously, then he should always keep the $20. And Player A should figure this out and always keep the $5 to begin with.

      The only reason “trust” would come into play is if there are repeat occurences or other interactions between the players.

      As far as scenario 2, Player A should always give the $5 away. His expected value is $5 in either scenario, but even if he loses, the other guy gets $20 and maximizes the amount the idiot researchers have to give away.

      So, interestingly, the students have it backwards. You should be **MORE** likely to give the money away during the random scenario.

      1. Actually, if you consider Sharpe Ratios, you should probably just keep the $5 in scenario 2 also.

        But the ability to drain the researchers coffers makes giving it away worth putting up with the variance.

  3. These types of studies are absolutely fucking idiotic. There’s nothing even remotely scientific about them. They mean nothing, and are forgotten in five minutes after some partisan hacks can maybe flog their hobby horses with it for a while.

    1. Most news is forgotten about after five minutes.

      1. What were we talking about again? Was it last night’s Game of Thrones?

  4. What about those ‘Free Candy’ vans I keep seeing? Are they legit?

      1. Luckily my office door is closed. I laughed.

    1. You should totally help your creepy neighbor find his lost puppy too.

      1. “I saw him run into the basement.”

  5. Do we have a number for what percentage of Player B’s actually took the whole $20 vs. gave half back, given the chance? Because without that information, judging player A’s actions isn’t meaningful.

    It’s not entirely impossible that, in fact, giving the money gave better outcomes.

  6. The other problem here is that the participants know they’re in a study.

    It wouldn’t be hard given the structure of the study to figure out what is being studied. So your conduct in the study would be at least in part based on what YOU want the outcome of the study to be.

    “Oh, wow, man, this professor is like, studying how people should, like, help each other, man. I think I’ll give my $5 away because, like, that’s how society would be, man, if it wasn’t for the corporations.”


    1. It’s pretty hard to do any study with human test subjects, anyway, so might as well just simulate them using monkeys.

      1. ENB says this is similar to trusting a street vendor. So here’s an idea, enlist some street vendors of varying degrees of shadiness and place them throughout some city. Give the vendors some 5’s and a bunch of 1’s to make change. Video. See how many people count the change. Boom. Science.

  7. Why all the skepticism about the study? Weird psychological quirks upset pure game theory in these kinds of studies all the times. Is it that it doesn’t confirm that people are naturally both purely rational and psychotic, thus making a true libertopia less likely to be possible?

    1. Because it is a stupid study that demonstrates nothing = not ‘results people don’t like’.

      ‘Games’ like this are cute for academic researchers, but they say nothing about anything other than ‘the game’.

  8. Suggested alt-text: Which one just farted?

    1. The chick on the left trying to look innocent.

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