'False Consensus' Theory Explains Why We Trust The Wrong People

Trust fall

Photo: Stati.gram/wongwui_55

When deciding whether to trust somebody, we think about what we would do in that situation — even if experience tells us other people are more or less trustworthy. That default mode is called “false consensus” theory.    

A new working paper from Paola Giuliano at UCLA tests whether false consensus makes us trust the wrong people, even when we get contradictory information. 

Here’s how the authors describe their theory:

False consensus implies that highly trustworthy individuals will tend to think that others are like them and form overly optimistic trust beliefs, while highly untrustworthy people will extrapolate from their own type and form excessively pessimistic beliefs. Both highly trustworthy and highly untrustworthy individuals will tend to systematically form more extreme trust beliefs than are warranted by their experiences.”

The authors found that not only do individual’s beliefs follow their own trustworthiness, that belief continues even when contradicted by experience, and that there can be a financial cost to those choices.  

In a trust game involving money, those who were the most or least trustworthy and had mis-calibrated beliefs (too optimistic or pessimistic about others) earned 18 per cent less than others.

If you’re a scrupulously trustworthy person, make sure to consult someone else or focus on a time that attitude has backfired. Otherwise you could end up applying your own beliefs to somebody who doesn’t share them. 

Read the full paper here

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