Who Are the Most Trustworthy? The Guilt Prone

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Wharton's Maurice Schweitzer discusses his new research on trustworthiness.

In our lives, we are often confronted with issues of whom to trust. But how do we know who is worthy of being told a big secret or put in charge of a high-stakes project? According to Wharton professor of operations, information and decisions Maurice Schweitzer, one important thing to look for is people who are prone to feeling guilty. He recently joined the Knowledge@Wharton radio show on SiriusXM to discuss his paper, “Who is Trustworthy? Predicting Trustworthy Intentions and Behavior.” The paper was co-authored with T. Bradford Bitterly, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, Taya R. Cohen, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business, and Emma Levine, a professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledg@Wharton: What is the distinction between being trusting and being trustworthy? Why is it important to understand that?

Maurice Schweitzer: Most of the research, as you pointed out, has been looking at how people trust others — so who’s a trusting person, who’s less trusting — and people link this to a number of organizational behaviors as well as to the economy more broadly. When you have a trusting society, everything works more smoothly. When I can trust you, I know that I don’t have to monitor you as closely…. It’s like this lubricant that allows us to function much more efficiently and smoothly. At the organizational level, at the economy-wide level, trust is this incredibly important ingredient. And yet, surprisingly little work has looked at trustworthiness; that is, are we are we trusting the right people, and what makes people more or less trustworthy.

Knowledge@Wharton: What are some of the positive and negative sides of trust?

Schweitzer: There’s all this work about what makes people more or less trusting, but the way we place our trust could be quite bad. In fact, people who are very trusting are more likely to fall for scams, and you know those [scammers] are people that are exploiting the trust of others. I see this as really sort of this duality; trust and deception are really two sides of the same coin. I can only be duped by you if I’m a trusting person. And one the other side, I need to be trusting for us to get things done.

Knowledge@Wharton: What about trustworthiness? How do we determine that — and how has it changed?

“If you’re trying to figure out who should be minding the accounts, who should be at the cash register, it’s the guilt-prone person.”

Schweitzer: We’re making these judgments all the time about whom to trust. And if you think about it, we’ve made this transformation where there are many cues in our environment that have changed. We used to be brought up hearing, “Don’t get into a stranger’s car.” And now, when Uber pulls up, we just hop right in. Or [we heard,] “Don’t let strangers into your house.” Well, with Airbnb, strangers are renting my house out all the time. We’ve changed the game a bit, and in part we have ratings systems, reputations that are now helping us make these trust decisions. But fundamentally, at the psychological level, what we’re looking at is: Are we making these decisions in the right way, and who really is trustworthy?

Knowledge@Wharton: How do you go about getting a better handle on those questions?

Schweitzer: We tapped into a personality trait that hasn’t received as much attention as say, the “Big Five” personality traits [extraversion, openness, agreeableness, neuroticism and conscientiousness.] The personality trait we tapped into is something called guilt proneness, or how prone someone is to feeling guilty. Imagine you’re out at a party. You have a glass of red wine, and you spill some red wine onto a white carpet. How would you feel? The people who would feel extremely guilty about that are the people who are prone to feeling guilt. Now what’s interesting is that people who are prone to feeling guilt, they don’t actually experience a lot more guilt because they spend a lot of effort trying to avoid putting themselves in that position. Those are the people who would say, if I’m if I’m going to be drinking wine over a white carpet, I’m having white wine. Those are the people that are thinking ahead to make sure they’re not missing deadlines. They’re not falling short of your expectations. They’re going to take their time and work extra hard to take other precautions. Those are the guilt-prone people. And it turns out that those people are pretty reliable. And when it comes to being trustworthy, those are the people we should be trusting.

Knowledge@Wharton: So those are the type of people who, when a problem occurs, would own up to it and accept the responsibility as well?

Schweitzer: That’s right. In the in the academic literature, people have disentangled guilt from shame, where people thought of shame as this self-directed, inward feeling: “I feel shame, I’m a bad person.” Whereas guilt is, “I’ve got to attack this problem to make things right there.” It’s much more outward. I’m trying to repair some relationship or somehow where I’ve fallen short. What our research shows is that if you’re trying to figure out who should be minding the accounts, who should be at the cash register, it’s the guilt-prone person. We tend not to be very good in general discerning in whom we should place our trust. We often rely on superficial cues — for example, how baby-faced somebody looks, or if they’re older. We might trust them based upon some physical appearance cues, and a lot of the personality cues that we might rely on aren’t so helpful. But guilt proneness turns out to be pretty useful.

Knowledge@Wharton: How can being aware of this impact our thinking on a day-to-day basis?

Schweitzer: That’s our point: to think differently about it. That is, rather than trying to figure out directly if somebody is trustworthy or not, which is pretty hard, we can more easily assess whether or not somebody is guilt prone.

Knowledge@Wharton: What are the business implications of this? It seems like many projects or initiatives can succeed or fail based on the trustworthiness of the employees who are involved with them.

Schweitzer: What we fail to appreciate is how fundamental trust is to almost everything that we do and within an organization. With trust, we don’t have to expend a lot of effort on monitoring people, we don’t have to track them, we can direct our focus somewhere else. Without trust, we’ve got to closely monitor everything. We’ve got to make sure we’re measuring everything that we care about, and it can almost bring us to a standstill. Trust really emerges as one of these fundamental building blocks for an effective organization. We can think about things like building a sense of identity: We all think of ourselves as … one family, or one … organization. Somehow, if we’re working together, we’re going to trust each other to advance the best interests of the group, which is often not exactly the best interest of the individual. It might be easier to cut some corners or to fudge some numbers or do something that’s easier for me, but not good for the group.

“Trust really emerges as one of these fundamental building blocks for an effective organization.”

Knowledge@Wharton: Is being prone to guilt a trait that can be learned later in life? Does it change over time, or is how you start out pretty much how you’re going to remain?

Schweitzer: The way we looked at it was that it was something more innate. So we weren’t looking at it as something we might be able to manipulate or change. I think being guilt prone is baked in earlier on, and that’s how we’re brought up. I think at a very young age we have our meter set somewhere, and it’s something that people are pretty cognizant of. I’m sure if you were to ask people how much how much do you worry about feeling guilty if you let other people down … you’d find really wide variation, and we can certainly introspect on this. Is it good or bad to be guilt prone? Well, it’s sometimes good and sometimes bad, but we do know that those guilt-prone people tend to be really conscientious in ways that then fulfill people’s trust.

Knowledge@Wharton: We have seen companies make a concerted effort within their operations in the last few years to have teams working together on projects instead of individuals. How does trust impact how well those groups work together?

Schweitzer: In studies of the military, when you ask soldiers why they do things, why they engage in some heroic efforts, it’s not simply because of this broad sense of mission. It’s because of their buddies, it’s because of their team, it’s because of their platoon. I think the same thing is true about having people work on teams. Once you work on a team … [you think,] “I don’t want to let you down. I don’t want you to suffer because I fell short somehow.” And so there’s a greater sense of responsibility, a community identity on that team.

Knowledge@Wharton: Can having one or a group of very trustworthy people on a team cause the rest of the group to change their behavior as well? Does everyone try to step up their efforts in reaction to these people?

Schweitzer: It does have this cascading effect. There’s another important point related to our research, which is when people know that you’re relying on them because you have high expectations about their trustworthiness, that drives people to be more trustworthy. If I rely on you and you think I’m just doing it because I’m naive or sloppy or clueless, you might be apt to try to teach me a lesson, to say, “Hey, you’re just naive and stupid and you shouldn’t be in this market or shouldn’t be rewarded for that.” But when I’m doing it because I trust you and I have high expectations about what you’re going to do — and a small team can help facilitate that and the language we use can facilitate that — you’re far more likely to be trustworthy.

“The reason why Uber works is we trust the reputation system…. [If] we couldn’t trust the Uber system, the whole thing breaks down.”

Knowledge@Wharton: There are a lot of questions in the political and business worlds right now about who can be trusted and why. Can this type of research have a cultural impact?

Schweitzer: Our work didn’t tackle that question directly, but I’ll step off the ledge and speculate. There’s an expression, “A fish rots from the head [down].” We need the head of the organization or the head of any broader community to set norms and expectations about what kinds of behaviors are acceptable and what kinds of behaviors are not. When it comes to things like being trustworthy, those norms get set and people are looking for benchmarks about what’s reasonable and what’s appropriate behavior. And I think it’s [important] for everyone leading an organization to be really mindful about the way they’re speaking and the way they’re behaving and how that matches. The technical term is behavioral integrity. So when a CEO says it’s important for us to cut our budget or to be very mindful of our costs and then they jet off in their private planes, it sends a mixed message of being hypocritical, and people hate hypocrites.

Knowledge@Wharton: Do you think there is enough recognition by businesses that trust is important? Are HR departments using this in hiring, for example? Are leadership teams taking it into account then they make important decisions?

Schweitzer: I think some do. I think some organizations really fundamentally get it, and I think many organizations are characterized by leadership that’s focused on a much shorter-term perspective. Think about the VW emissions cheating scandal — sort of fundamentally breaking that trust in a way that was intentional, malicious and exploitative. Or think about Wells Fargo opening up fake accounts. When we think about a relationship with an organization, we have to trust these organizations. We trust organizations with our data, whether it’s Facebook or somebody else. We’re entrusting these organizations, and when our trust gets exploited, there’s a really long-term effect where we sever that relationship and we’re less likely to trust and we’re going to put up barriers that really impede the broader relationship and then the economic activity that follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: How important is it that the CEO of a company is viewed as trustworthy by employees and stockholders?

“You can recover trust. It’s not like glass that can never be put back together. You can put it back together, but it’s more fragile.”

Schweitzer: If employees don’t trust the [company’s] executives, they don’t want to stick around. They’re going be developing other plans, and they’re looking for the door and if they’re spending half the time looking for something else to do or they’re sort of hedging their bets. They’re not going to be fully committed to that organization. And then there’s customers and other organizations — the reliability and the trustworthiness that we project is going to have these long-term repercussions. We talk about reputation. The reason why Uber works is we trust the reputation system. The reason why Airbnb works is we trust that reputation system. [If] we couldn’t trust the Uber system, the whole thing breaks down.

Knowledge@Wharton: Can companies regain customers’ trust after losing it? It seems like sometimes a company will commit a major error and then 6-12 months later, it’s almost been forgotten by most of the public.

Schweitzer: You can recover trust. It’s not like glass that can never be put back together. You can put it back together, but it’s more fragile. You can work at it. There are some things that companies have done to repair trust in a very effective way, when they really promise a change, they enact those changes, and again, their words match their deeds and you believe that this has become a new and different organization. People can restore trust in themselves and organizations, but often that trust is more fragile and more sensitive to missteps, and some people really do sever that relationship and move somewhere else. Trust recovery is quite an interesting topic, but it is something that can sometimes never fully recover, particularly when it’s accompanied by deception. I think that’s where VW’s missteps were particularly serious.

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