A number of studies have looked into why people do or do not trust each other, but little research has addressed what, exactly, makes someone trustworthy. A new study suggests that, when considering who is worthy of our confidence, we may want to look to those likely to feel guilty.
In a new study that was led by the University of Chicago Booth School of Business in Illinois, Emma Levine and team set out to investigate what makes a person worthy of others’ trust.
After conducting several experiments, the team identified one key trait to be a good predictor of whether or not someone is likely to behave in a trustworthy manner: guilt-proneness.
Unlike feelings of guilt, which are likely to emerge after a particular act has been committed and to lead to reparative behaviors, guilt-proneness predates any act that might result in guilt.
As the study authors explain, guilt-prone people will anticipate that they will have feelings of guilt as a result of performing a certain act, which will deter them from doing it. In short, they are more likely to feel accountable and therefore to avoid wrongdoing.
The team’s findings are reported in a paper recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Levine and colleagues ran six experiments that revolved around economic games and surveys that assessed whether or not people presented trustworthy behaviors and demonstrated honorable intentions.
Essentially, what they found was that people who had high guilt-proneness were likely to return higher amounts of money to others, compared with participants with low proneness to guilt.
Also, guilt-proneness was found to be a better predictor of a person’s trustworthiness than many other personality traits, including their extraversion, openness, agreeableness, proneness to neuroticism, and conscientiousness.
“Our findings,” say the study authors, “extend the substantial literature on trust by deepening our understanding of trustworthiness: when deciding in whom to place trust, trust the guilt-prone.”
This might have important implications for employers and team leaders when it comes to them choosing who to work with.
One experiment, for example, suggested that individuals can be “guided” to feel more responsible about their own actions and how they can impact other people.
Participants who had been asked to read a code of conduct demonstrated more accountability and were more likely to return money to peers, compared with those individuals who had been asked to read about how important it is to stick up for oneself.
“Trust and trustworthiness are critical for effective relationships and effective organizations,” claim the study authors.
“Individuals and institutions incur high costs when trust is misplaced, but people can mitigate these costs by engaging in relationships with individuals who are trustworthy,” they add.
Levine argues that employers would benefit from heeding such findings and ensuring that the people they take on in their teams have a strong sense of accountability in relation to others.
“Our research suggests that if you want your employees to be worthy of trust, make sure they feel personally responsible for their behavior and that they expect to feel guilty about wrongdoing.”