How Quickly You Decide to Trust…and Why You’re Likely Wrong

How much time do you think it took you to read this sentence?

The average person reads approximately 238 words per minute, so that 13-word sentence probably took you about 3.25 seconds to read.

How long do you think it takes you to make an initial assessment of another person’s trustworthiness? Try 1/10th of a second.

A study by two Princeton psychologists, Janine Willis and Alexander Todorov, revealed that people assess the facial features of others in milliseconds and form judgements about the person’s trustworthiness, among other traits. Although Willis’ and Todorov’s study was remarkable for revealing the speed at which people make these assessments, other studies support the notion of how quickly we form initial impressions. One study illustrated that it takes under 30 seconds to assess a person’s body language and form judgements about how we think they’ll behave toward us, while another showed that it takes just 20 seconds for a person to appraise the trustworthiness of a complete stranger.

Whether it’s milliseconds or a half-minute, we make quick judgements about another person’s trustworthiness…and those decisions are often wrong.

Our initial impressions of another person are often clouded by our own mental biases and falsely interpreting the physical and behavioral signals we receive from them. I like to call these trust traps.

Trust Traps

One common trust trap is affinity bias. We have a predisposition to look favorably upon others who share similar characteristics, backgrounds, interests, or beliefs that we hold. Without even consciously recognizing it, we may place more trust in a person who went to the same school as we did, grew up in the same neighborhood, or shares the same religious faith, yet none of those factors can fully speak to the person’s trustworthiness without further exploration.

Another frequent trust trap is confirmation bias. This unconscious bias happens when we look for evidence that confirms our existing beliefs, essentially seeing what we want to see. If your life experiences have conditioned you to believe that most people can’t be trusted, then you will (consciously and unconsciously) look for signs in another person that confirm your belief that they are untrustworthy. Conversely, if your experience has taught you that most people can be trusted, you’ll be more likely to look for signs confirming you can trust another person. In either scenario, your previous experience has no bearing on the trustworthiness of a person you’re meeting for the first time.

Cultural norms can be another trust trap that derails our judgement. For example, in Western culture, people generally interpret direct eye contact and a firm handshake as signs of trustworthiness. However, in Eastern cultures, a softer handshake and indirect eye contact is more the norm. If we only use our own cultural lens to interpret the behavior of others, we will likely make mistakes that damage or limit the effectiveness of our relationships.

Perhaps one of the trust traps people most often encounter is mistaking a person’s confidence for competence. People who project self-confidence and assertiveness are often perceived as being competent and trustworthy, yet anyone can talk a good game without backing it up. Confidence is feeling capable. Competence is being capable. We want to place our trust in people who are truly capable, not those who simply feel they are capable.

These are just a few of the common trust traps that impair our ability to accurately gauge another person’s trustworthiness. Others include the social status of the person being judged, emotions being expressed by us and others, and our own emotional intelligence. All these dynamics play a factor in shaping our judgements about trusting others.

Deciding Whom to Trust

The reality is that when it comes to assessing another person’s trustworthiness, our initial impressions can only take us so far. And, as I’ve discussed above, our initial impressions are often faulty.

To fully understand another person’s trustworthiness, we need to examine their behaviors. The best predictor of a person’s future trustworthiness is their past trustworthiness. If you’re not sure where to start, you can start by asking these four questions.

What’s your experience with trusting others? Have your initial assessments proved accurate? Have they gotten you in hot water? Feel free to join the conversation by sharing your comments on this article.

6 Comments on “How Quickly You Decide to Trust…and Why You’re Likely Wrong

  1. No one is completely trustworthy. It depends on your own frame of mind and attitude in that particular period of time. We cannot program our responses, only if we choose to have one.

    At that moment

    • Hello Miss B,

      You are correct, in the sense that everyone erodes trust at some point in time. Building trust is a journey, not a destination. We never get to a point where we can say to ourselves, “I’m done building trust!”

      Thanks for commenting!


  2. It is quite interesting how many of our decisions are impacted by awareness – of self, of others, of context, etc. This discussion topic in particular emphasizes not only the need but the validity of meaningful re-evaluation. Giving your self permission to do so can actually strengthen your personal confidence in the area of evaluating those around you (and maybe even yourself, once in a while).

    • Hello Flossie!

      I agree that self-awareness is crucial to our success. When our self-awareness is high, we have an advantage in handling situations more thoughtfully and skillfully. When it’s low, we are more likely to not be successful.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. I hope you are well.


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