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Carol Kinsey GomanKnowing whom to trust is an important social and business skill. But it’s not that simple – although it’s fast. It took me just seven seconds to assess your confidence, competence, status, likability, warmth and, yes, your trustworthiness.

You can’t stop me (or anyone, for that matter) from making these snap decisions. The human brain is wired that way.

Whenever we meet new people, our brain automatically and immediately begins to categorize them in some way – male or female, same or different, friend or foe – in order to predict what’s likely to happen next.

We rely on estimates, or guesses, based on our past experiences and preconceptions because few of us have the mental agility to consciously perceive and process all the factors needed to make these calculations.

While these mental shortcuts work reasonably well most of the time, they also leave us vulnerable to a variety of judgment traps.

When I decided not to trust you, my snap judgment was influenced by the category I put you in and the traits I assigned to that category. In your case, I labelled you as untrustworthy for five reasons – none of which had anything to do with your actual trustworthiness:

You weren’t like me

There’s a well-known principle in social psychology that people define themselves in terms of social groupings. Any group that people feel part of is an ‘in-group’; any group that excludes them is an ‘out-group.’ (It’s the ‘us’ and ‘them’ division.)

Similarities make us feel comfortable. We assume we know what in-group people are like – they’re good, like we are. Differences, on the other hand, make us wary. When we see people as part of an out-group, we’re more likely to judge them as untrustworthy.

Because you didn’t remind me of myself, I saw you as part of the less trustworthy out-group.

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You behaved suspiciously

We all tend to make judgments about another person’s integrity based on our ideas of appropriate behaviour. This shows up in lie detection when we believe that we know how we’d act if we were telling the truth – and that other truthful people would or should behave the same way.

You didn’t act the way I would when we met. When you said you were happy to meet me, you didn’t smile or offer to shake my hand. Because of this off-putting behaviour, I became suspicious of your motives.

You had low eyebrows

By studying people’s reactions to a range of artificially generated faces, researchers in Princeton’s psychology department found that faces with high inner eyebrows, pronounced cheekbones, and a wide chin struck people as trustworthy. Conversely, faces with low inner brows, shallow cheekbones and a thin chin were deemed untrustworthy.

Of course, I realize that eyebrow shapes and cheekbone prominence have no relationship with trustworthiness. But the moment I saw you, I unconsciously overrode my rational mind to make this instinctive judgment.

You didn’t make eye contact

The biggest body language myth about deception is that liars avoid eye contact. While it’s true that some liars find it difficult to lie while looking you in the eyes, other liars, especially the most brazen, actually overcompensate to prove that they’re being truthful by making strong, direct eye contact and holding it steadily.

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You may have been shy, introverted, or from a culture in which direct eye contact is considered intimidating or impolite. But all I noticed was that you didn’t look at me when you spoke and that made me think you were being deceptive or, at least, not authentically invested in what you were saying.

You had your hands in your pockets

Hand and arm gestures are not only an adjunct to speech; gesturing may have been our oldest method of communication. Researchers now believe that early humans communicated using a form of mime. Somewhere in our evolutionary history, speech took over from gesture as the main form of communication. But gesture retains its power as an illustrator and trust indicator.

While I would have evaluated your open palm gestures as a non-verbal signal that you had nothing to hide, your concealed hands made it difficult for me to trust you.

But now that I know you, I see that you’re candid, honest and highly trustworthy. I’ve learned that deciding whether to trust someone by the initial impression they make is a process that can and often should be revised.

Troy Media columnist Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD, is an executive coach, consultant, and international keynote speaker at corporate, government, and association events. She is also the author of STAND OUT: How to Build Your Leadership Presence. For interview requests, click here.


The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the authors’ alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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