A New Study Reveals The Weird Reason We Feel Like We Can “Just Trust” Some Strangers

by Megan Grant

Think of a time when you had some sort of interaction with a complete stranger and, for whatever reason, felt you could trust them. Now, think of another time when the opposite happened, and you were immediately distrusting of a stranger. In both cases, you had no reason for either reaction, because you didn't know the person. Still, we make snap judgments on people without even realizing it, and researchers might have found the reason why. According to a new study, the reason why we trust some stranger but not others may have to do with people we've met in the past that somehow resemble them.

Judging A Book By Its Cover

A team of psychology researchers at New York University reported their findings in the latest issue of Proceeds of the National Academy of Sciences, which were also shared on NYU's website. They made an interesting discovery: how much we trust strangers may depend on their resemblance to people from our past — and how much we trusted those people. If a stranger even slightly resembles someone from your past who you knew to be trustworthy, you're likelier to trust them more. Conversely, if they resemble someone who you knew not to be trustworthy, you'll trust them less.

Lead author Oriel FeldmanHall likened it to Pavlov's dog. While the dog was conditioned with a single bell, it would salivate upon hearing bells with similar tones. Similarly, "... we use information about a person’s moral character, in this case whether they can be trusted, as a basic Pavlovian learning mechanism in order to make judgments about strangers." This connection can be made whether we realize it or not.

Here's how the researchers came to these findings. They first conducted a game where participants had to make decisions about their partners' trustworthiness, regarding whether or not they could trust them with their money. Three partners were presented to them using facial images. One partner was highly trustworthy, one was somewhat, and the third wasn't at all.

In a subsequent task, the same participants were asked to pick partners for a different game. However, the options available to them were the three original partners from the first game, with their faces morphed. The participants were unaware of this. Regardless, they consistently chose to play with the partners who resembled the original player they found trustworthy. Even more interesting was their trust in their partner increased the more the partner resembled the original picture.

Conversely, trust decreased the more the partner looked like the untrustworthy one.

These findings go to show that even unintentionally, we make quick decisions about people based on their looks. This isn't the first time science has studied the psychology of snap decisions and come to these conclusions. For example, some studies (as shared in the Association for Psychological Science) have found despite a political candidate's platform, qualifications, experience, and voting record, it's still their faces which ultimate drive our decision to side with them or not. Appearances affect unconscious judgments so much that, according to research, teachers unconsciously believe attractive children are smarter. They then give them more attention, the children are more successful academically, and the initial decision about their intelligence is upheld. It's almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What Can You Do About It?

As explained on Fact/Myth, no one can truly be 100 percent unbiased. It's hardwired into our minds, and we're constantly creating even more bias; but it's part of the learning process. While we can't do away with it completely (and we probably wouldn't want to anyway), we can still make a point of checking in with ourselves to make sure we're not passing judgment on people based on something as insignificant as appearances.

You don't need to be reminded that the way a person looks doesn't speak to their character.