“Trust me. You’ll be fine.” Those were the words I heard rattling around my head as I stood on a cliff overlooking a 35-foot straight drop into the lake.
Our FBI SWAT team had spent the day doing tactical training and now we were enjoying a few hours of downtime. We had been boat cruising around the lake in Tennessee on a team member’s boat until someone thought it would be a “good idea” to jump off a nearby cliff.
Before I knew it, I was standing in line strapped snuggly into a borrowed life jacket awaiting my turn. Every few minutes a guy would jump and disappear over the edge. It seemed like forever before I would hear a splash. Finally, it was my turn.
And yet, there I was hesitating and trying to work out why I had agreed to this crazy idea and if I actually did trust my friend.
In her May 3, 2021, article published by National Public Radio, Rose Eveleth discusses the challenges of being open-minded – something we all need to work on.
Eveleth says one of the areas to practice when it comes to being open-minded is to “be curious.” She quotes Charan Ranganath, the director of the Dynamic Memory Lab at UC Davis, as saying being curious “requires an active choice when you encounter something you didn't know, or that doesn't match your worldview. Do I just assume this is something I already knew? Do I assume that something bad has happened and I need to be afraid and hide? Or do I want to be curious and explore?”
When I read those questions, I couldn’t help but think of the one thing that would allow me to “be curious” when it came to overcoming my fears and embracing new encounters, new people, and new ideas: trust.
From early days humans have been trying to figure out who is trustworthy and who is not. Blandly speaking, a trustworthy person holds the promise of “substantial personal, interpersonal, and economic rewards, but trusting the untrustworthy holds serious and sometimes even fatal costs.”
Punishments for being untrustworthy have ranged from being visibly marked by scars in medieval Europe to being tattooed as a criminal in China over 3000 years ago to having one’s ears removed (cropping) for being a counterfeiter in the 18th century in the United States.  Ouch.
When it comes to learning to trust others (and hopefully avoiding those punishments), researchers have determined that people are able to form an impression, positive or negative, of someone as quickly as in 40 ms (milliseconds). In other words, the mind has formed an impression about the person before you are cognizant of your own feelings or impressions.
The part of the brain that has been identified as consistently being involved in determining trustworthiness is the amygdala. As the amygdala response increases, the perceived trustworthiness of an individual decreases. It’s an inverse relationship.
As we’ve learned before, the amygdala, along with the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, help regulate our stress. Too much stress and it can become toxic affecting not only our immediate fight or flight response but can also be detrimental to our long-term physical and mental health.
Additional research has also indicated that our amygdala is involved in how we judge people’s faces and whether we judge them as trustworthy faces. Further, people who were deemed as trustworthy and who were associated with positive behaviors (e.g., “She adopted a homeless child" were judged as more trustworthy than people who may have had a trustworthy face but were associated with negative behaviors (e.g., “He stole money from the priest.”).
Our amygdala forms a positive impression of a person’s trustworthiness and then ascertains whether the person was involved in positive or negative behaviors. With those determinations, our brain then acts as a buffer to any subsequent information that would cast doubts on our first impression!
We want to believe that a person who we deemed trustworthy is always that – trustworthy.
From a leadership perspective, we have learned from Daniel Goleman that the ability to mentor people, manage clients, and understand group dynamics is directly tied to the part of the brain that can be affected by trauma: the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the prefrontal cortex.
Is it possible then that our ability to effectively lead people whom we deem as initially trustworthy is dependent upon the first 40 ms of meeting them? And if they then engage in untrustworthy behavior will our brain’s “first impression” keep us from recognizing the problem and addressing it?
Is a leader’s first impression of an employee valid? And as an employee, is their first impression of a supervisor a valid impression? According to the data, the answer to those questions is, “Yes.”
Our first impressions, according to the research, are usually quite accurate. While we can make impressions within the first 40 ms, our final “first impressions” are often reached within 100 ms. Research has shown that even if we have additional time beyond the 100 ms, even lots of additional time, our initial judgments don’t change and are generally proven to be reliable.
While you might be surprised that our brain reaches such a quick determination of another’s trustworthiness, you won’t be surprised to learn that our brains are looking for cues – cues of safety or cues of danger. For example, an angry face is perceived as untrustworthy and to be avoided while a happy face is viewed as being trustworthy and embraced.
We have also learned from researchers that impressions of trustworthiness and dominance are strongly related to the ideas of warmth and competence. Again, for leadership purposes, we can see these characteristics played out in how we view transactional and transformational leaders.
A transactional leader most often acts aggressively towards others in order to demonstrate their dominance. Their facial cues (and actions) towards others are that they should be feared. Transformational leaders, on the other hand, demonstrate a behavior designed to inspire others to follow them. Their facial cues (and actions) towards others are that they can be trusted and admired.
I think we can see that determining another’s trustworthiness is not so much a long, drawn-out, cognitive exercise, as it is a process that stems from the structure of a person’s face, from the first impressions one receives from another, and from the cues of safety or danger we receive before we even realize we are perceiving and reaching these conclusions.
Last week we looked at implicit bias and learned that “implicit biases are associations and reactions that emerge automatically and often without awareness upon encountering a relevant stimulus.”
Based on what we now know about how we reach a determination on a person’s trustworthiness, it begs the question, “Are implicit bias and trust connected?”
Next week, we will further explore cues of safety and cues of danger and what we can learn from the Polyvagal Theory, and then we will tie all these ideas together.
Until then, I’m hoping you will continue to “think big thoughts!”
 Rose Eveleth, “You’re Probably Not As Open-Minded As You Think. Here’s How To Practice,” National Public Radio, May 3, 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/04/28/991700784/youre-probably-not-as-open-minded-as-you-think-heres-how-to-practice  Ann-Christin Postena, Thomas Mussweiler, “Egocentric foundations of trust,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology Volume 84, September 2019, 103820. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0022103118308886 Ann-Christin Postena, et al. Sean G. Baron, M. I. Gobbini, Andrew D. Engell, and Alexander Todorov, “Amygdala and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex responses to appearance-based and behavior-based person impressions,” SCAN (2011) 6, 572-581. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21030482/ Sean G. Baron, et al.  Jack P. Shonkoff, MD, Andrew S. Garner, MD, PhD, “The Lifelong Effects of Early Childhood Adversity and Toxic Stress,” PEDIATRICS Volume 129, Number 1, January 2012: e232–e24. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22201156/ Sean G. Baron, et al. Sean G. Baron, et al.  Daniel Goleman, “The Focused Leader: How effective executives direct their own—and their organizations’—attention,” Harvard Business Review, December 2013, https://hbr.org/2013/12/the-focused-leader  M. van ’t Wout, A.G. Sanfey, “Friend or foe: The effect of implicit trustworthiness judgments in social decision-making,” Cognition 108 (2008) 796–803. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18721917/  Clare A.M. Sutherland, Julian A. Oldmeadow, Andrew W. Young, “Integrating social and facial models of person perception: Converging and diverging dimensions,” Cognition 157 (2016) 257–267. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27689511/ Clare A.M. Sutherland, et al. Clare A.M. Sutherland, et al.  Natalie M. Daumeyer, Ivuoma N. Onyeador, Xanni Brown, Jennifer A. Richeson, “Consequences of attributing discrimination to implicit vs. explicit bias,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology Volume 84, September 2019, 103812, 1-10. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0022103118305018?via%3Dihub