I recently read about a study at the University of Toronto designed to test who is best at detecting lies, cynics or those who tend to give others the benefit of the doubt. The “high trusters” proved better at spotting liars than those who assumed the worst about others.
The title of the article, “The Beauty of Trust,” suggested a conclusion that, if we become more trusting, we are actually more likely to know when someone is trying to take advantage of us. It occurred to me, however, that this might be putting the cart before the horse. Perhaps those who were better at picking up nonverbal indications of dishonesty could afford to be more trusting, while those with poor intuition found it necessary to be more suspicious.
However, the author, Allina Tugend, a self-described pessimist, went on to relate how learning about the U. Toronto study inspired her to experiment with dropping some of her suspicions. Sure enough, she enjoyed several pleasant surprises when she opened herself up to people.
When a coworker complimented her on a piece of work she had done, she overcame her suspicion that the coworker was leading up to a request for help, even though the coworker had done so in the past. Instead, Tugend simply thanked her coworker for the compliment, and lo and behold, found that it was only a compliment. No request to help with the coworker’s project. The nicest surprise was that, afterward, Tugend felt better about herself.
She also tried starting up a conversation with a neighbor she had previously avoided because she thought the woman was “judgmental.” She even went so far as to tell the neighbor a concern she had about her son. As it turned out, the neighbor, who shared a similar concern about one of her own children, was understanding and supportive.
Tugend concluded that, even though she would occasionally get taken by someone, the rewards of dropping autopilot suspicion outweighed the risks.
Is the converse true? Do people who assume the worst about others actually get taken advantage of more often? I’ve encountered a number of such people over the years, and observed that, yes, they do. More specifically, I have seen the very people who are usually suspicious and cynical turn around and trust the one person who is least trustworthy. This brings us back to the results of the University of Toronto study—cynics score lower in detecting dishonesty.
Another factor at play in these results is that humans have a tendency to live up, or down, to our expectations, expectations they can often sense even if we don’t mention them.
I certainly would not recommend that anyone blindly trust everyone they encounter. However, if one generally tends to be suspicious and often feels taken advantage of, he might do as author Tugend did, and try some experiments. I would begin experimenting with situations in which there is little or nothing to lose.
For example, suppose that, like Tugend, I were concerned that a compliment could lead to a request for assistance I did not want to give. What do I risk by accepting the compliment? Nothing but the necessity of politely saying “no.” I could “repay” the compliment with a return compliment, rather than by taking on someone else’s work project.
I could plan to express thanks for the next ten compliments, and resolve in advance to decline, with regrets, any follow-up requests I couldn’t, or didn’t want to, meet. I could keep notes on which compliments were followed by requests and which were not, and look for common factors in the two categories.
If I have avoided a particular individual because I imagine that she might be snobby, I can try actually speaking to her and see for myself. Again, there’s no great risk in doing so. If the other person really is snobby, I can go back to avoiding her. But if not, I just might discover her good qualities, things she has to offer me.
Are you a high truster, a cynic, or somewhere in between? Can you think of any low-risk experiments you might like to try? If so, I’d love to hear how they work out.
 “The Beauty of Trust,” Oprah Magazine, Dec. 2012