The Surprising Link Between Trust and Racism

Photograph by Don Bayley

Whether we’re socializing or flirting or hawking our old furniture online, we want others to trust us. At work, in open-plan offices with flattened org charts, we work not for bosses, but in teams; we need to be able to rely on our co-workers’ abilities and integrity with the same assuredness with which we trust-fall into their arms on the annual retreat.

It turns out there’s something to be said for distrust, though, and not just in dealing with con men or strangers with candy. A new paper by psychologists at Harvard and the University of Cologne suggests that a healthy dose of distrust is an antidote to racism, sexism, and other forms of stereotyping. A mistrustful person, the researchers found, is a less biased one.

Here’s how the studies worked: The psychologists Ann-Christin Posten and Thomas Mussweiler primed their German test subjects to feel either trusting or mistrustful. In one study, the experimenters had subjects play a game with a partner who turned out to be either trustworthy or not, in another they were primed by the German words vertrauen (to trust) or misstrauen (to distrust) in milliseconds-long flashes on a screen—too fast for conscious awareness. Afterward, the subjects were presented with either pictures of people or stories about them, and asked to evaluate them. Consistently, the subjects who had been primed to be mistrustful were less likely to impose stereotypic characteristics onto the people they were exposed to than those who had been primed to feel trusting. They were less likely, for example, to automatically see women as less logical and less technically skilled than men, and less likely to see Turks as “noisy” and “vengeful.”

What’s going on here? Reached by phone at Harvard, where she is a postdoctoral fellow, Posten argues that distrust sharpens people’s thinking. As she puts it, “people in a distrustful mindset seem to use nonroutine information-processing strategies.” Trusting people essentially means assuming they are what they seem to be, which, if we don’t actually know the person, can lead us to rely on stereotypes. It’s a form of complacency. Not trusting someone means we’re not sure if a person is what they seem to be or not, and that makes us pay close attention to the actual information we have rather than vague generalities.

Priming research using methods like these has come under attack from skeptical psychologists recently, but Posten and Mussweiler’s findings fit with a broader set of results that show both the limits and the underside of human attributes like benevolence and trust. The Dutch psychologist Carsten K.W. De Dreu has found that oxytocin, the so-called “love hormone” that drives mothers to bond with their newborns and may play a role in romantic love, also has the effect of making people more ethnocentric. People given doses of oxytocin, he found, tended to discount the value of the lives of those of different ethnicities. The impressive human capacity for connection and cohesion, in other words, is difficult to disentangle from the tendency to create an out-group against which to unite.

Does this mean we shouldn’t trust anyone? No. That would be a miserable, counterproductive way to live, but looking at the world from time to time through a more suspicious lens might help us see it more clearly.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.