Why We Trust People Who Are Clearly Untrustworthy

Simply put, trusting others is a psychological default setting that’s tough to change.

Why We Trust People Who Are Clearly Untrustworthy
[Photo: Flickr user Gage Skidmore]

This presidential election season has highlighted quite a number of fascinating human behaviors, but one stands out. The PolitiFact team has consistently analyzed candidates’ statements and found many of them to be largely or completely false. And while that may not be unusual in politicians, it is remarkable how little of a liability it’s proving in one candidate in particular: PolitiFact has labeled Donald Trump’s statements “mostly false” over 65% of the time, yet he’s still leading the Republican pack.


Trust is actually a central part of our ability to survive in complex environments. In general, humans aren’t physically imposing organisms. Alone and without tools, we’re little match for many predators, not to mention the elements. But when we cooperate, we’re able to overcome just about any obstacle.

That, of course, takes trust, not just in one another, but in the leaders who organize us. Here’s why we’re sometimes prone to awarding trust to people who we’ve seen to be less than trustworthy.

What Trust Buys Society

We’re no longer hunters and gatherers. In a complex “information landscape” (as opposed to a natural one), specialization is key. In your daily life, you probably contribute only a small fraction of the resources required for your survival. Most of your food, clothing, and shelter has come from the work of other people. You turn on the faucet in your kitchen, and you expect clean water to come out–you unconsciously trust that it will. And most of the time, this trust is rewarded.

Indeed, society would be much less productive without this level of trust, because people wouldn’t be able to specialize in what they contribute to society. I wouldn’t have been able to learn so much psychology (let alone write articles about it) if I had to grow my own food, make my own clothing, and build and maintain my own home.

That means that our default orientation toward other people is to trust them. Indeed, the psychologist Dan Gilbert has demonstrated that we tend to believe the statements we hear from other people unless they’re explicitly marked as being false for some reason. That’s a high bar to clear, which helps explain why false information continues to affect our attitudes for so long.

Ultimately, it takes a lot of work for us to truly not trust an individual or institution, and to then act on that lack of trust. We have to be careful to avoid those people and go out of our way to mark every statement they make as false. And because–at least in the case of politics–the untrustworthy statements made by others rarely affect us adversely personally or immediately, we just aren’t highly motivated to go through all that work.


Distrust Is Tough To Earn

In many cases, though, a person’s explicit judgment that a candidate is untrustworthy is as much a reflection of that person’s overall attitude toward a candidate as it is a contributor to that attitude. In other words, when you have a negative overall impression of someone, you’re more likely to endorse negative statements about them and interpret their own actions negatively.

According to recent polls, many voters find Hillary Clinton to be an especially unlikable and untrustworthy candidate, which creates an overall negative impression. Those who hold that view are more likely to see signs of dishonesty in her behavior; a common critique among Clinton’s detractors is that she expresses viewpoints that she thinks will gain appeal, rather than what she genuinely believes. And that perceived inauthenticity, many of her detractors–and chiefly Trump–argue, makes her untrustworthy when it comes to statements of fact as well, even though PolitiFact has found Clinton’s statements to be “mostly false” less than 30% of the time.

This isn’t to debate who lies how often relative to whom. Instead, it’s to point up how trustworthiness is such a slippery sentiment–one that bears an often tenuous and shifting relationship to evidence. Even though a majority of the statements Trump has made during the campaign (about himself and his rivals) are known to be false, his supporters repeatedly say they favor him because he “tells it like it is.”

Why ignore such a consistent pattern of falsehoods? The answer is complicated and rests on a number of factors that beyond the specific things Trump says; his supporters cite his wealth, his status as a political outsider, and his willingness to speak bluntly on key issues, just to name a few.

But psychologically speaking, the trust we place in demonstrably untrustworthy people arises from our default tendency to do so. And when we already hold a positive impression of someone, we have scant motivation to actually mark their false statements as false. So we keep on trusting them.