Why Do We Trust Strangers?

Here’s a little paradox about modern life: most of us say we don’t trust strangers, but we end up doing just that. Sites like eBay and Kickstarter work based on trust, we believe reviews of random people on the internet, and about ten seconds ago, the girl next to me at Tim’s asked to watch her laptop while she’s in the can. So why do we do it?

According to a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, we do it because it’s expected of us. Researchers performed variations of the “trust game”, a common behavioural test where participants test their trust by giving a stranger money, who can keep it or give back a larger amount.

How it works: The first person is told that if they give the money to the second person, the money will by increased by a factor of four. The second person can then either keep all the money or give back half. As you can see, the optimal result for the first person happens if the first person trusts the second, and the second person respects that trust—$5 in the first person’s hand becomes $20 in the second persons, which then becomes $10 for both people. The optimal result for the second person, though, is to just keep the money—and there’s the rub.

Over six hundred students participated in the test, and even though only twenty per cent said they’d accept the gamble prior to testing, an average of sixty-two per cent trusted the strangers across all the testing.

In another experiment, researchers randomly assigned participants to either the trust game or a coin-flip version of the game, where the first person was told that the second person would flip a coin to determine whether or not to give money back. Sixty-seven per cent of the participants in the regular trust game opted to hand the money over, but only forty-four per cent of the participants in the coin flip game did so.

According to one of the authors, David Dunning, “People felt more strongly that they should give the money when a reward depended on the judgment of the other person rather than a coin flip,” Dunning said. “This was the case even though the same participants reported earlier that they thought there was only a 37 per cent chance they would get any money back in the trust game, compared to the 50 per cent chance of return with a coin-flip.”

This is a test