A study by researchers at The University of Western Australia and the University of Aberdeen in Scotland has examined the basis of trust and what makes some of us trust more readily than others.
The researchers studied 1,264 twins (identical and fraternal) to understand whether differences in trust were based on genetics or a person’s environment. They showed the twins different faces and asked them to rate how trustworthy, attractive and dominant each was.
They found that it was not specific facial features, genetics or a shared experience that affected their judgement, but an individual’s personal experience that influenced their perception of a trustworthy face. The study has been published in the PNAS journal.
Lead author Dr Clare Sutherland, Honorary Research Fellow from the UWA School of Psychological Science and Senior Lecturer at the University of Aberdeen, said the twins’ ratings were not the same which implied personal experience was a strong factor in their perception.
“Our impressions of trustworthiness can have extreme consequences, including the decisions we make such as financial lending, partner selection, and even prison-sentencing decisions so it is important to understand how they come about and what influences our perceptions,” Dr Sutherland said.
“As we go about our lives, we learn who looks trustworthy based on specific social interactions we have.
“So, for example, if I experience particularly trustworthy interactions with people with green eyes, then I might learn to specifically trust people with green eyes.”
Dr Sutherland said while previous research found that individual differences in face identity recognition was strongly driven by genes, the new study offered a contrasting result and new insights.
“It suggests that the cognitive architecture of face perception is more complex than perhaps we might have thought,” she said.
UWA postdoctoral researcher Dr Jemma Collova, who was also involved in the study, said the results gave a new perspective on the origins of trust and people’s capacity to change who we trust, for good or for ill.
“Our day-to-day personal experiences influence who we learn to trust,” Dr Collova said. “These impressions are increasingly important to understand, particularly because people rapidly form these impressions in everyday life, for example, based on an image of someone on Facebook.
“Our results suggest that the more different, or individualised, people’s experiences are, the more we might disagree with others about our impressions.”
The research was funded by the Australian Research Council and carried out in collaboration with researchers from Australia, the US and Holland and with the support of Twins Research Australia.