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Four Strategies to Invest Trust Wisely

Will Joel Friedman, Ph.D. is a seasoned clinician with experience working with adults, couples, families, adolescents and older children since 1976. His aim ...Read More

Tis an office of more trust to shave a man’s beard than to saddle a horse.
—Miguel De Cervantes (from Don Quixote)

The only way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him; and the surest way to make him untrustworthy is to distrust him and show your distrust.
—Henry Lewis Stimson
(from “The Bomb and the Opportunity”, Harper’s Magazine, March, 1946)

Four highly realistic and protective strategies are proposed for wisely investing your trust.  To set the groundwork for this, let’s look at the incidence of untrustworthy and trustworthy people, the possibility to transform and transcend being untrustworthy, a revealing story about investing trust and several research implications for investing trust.

First, just how commonplace are untrustworthy people? Brace yourself for the news-they are in the large majority, at least if lying is any index. The most thorough survey I’m aware of on the incidence of lying was conducted by James Patterson and Peter Kim and published in their book The Day American Told the Truth1. These researchers took their main survey sample from a randomly drawn sample of 2,000 adult Americans in 50 locations to have high geographic representation. The margin of error (statistical significance) for the univariate statistics they present is 2.2% at a publishable 95% confidence level.

These authors found that 91% of Americans engage in conscious, premeditated lies regularly and two out of three believe there is nothing wrong about telling a lie! 36% of Americans confess to telling serious falsehoods, such as lies that have legal consequences, hurt people, violate a trust or are totally self-serving. 86% lie regularly to their parents, 75% to friends, 73% to siblings and lovers, 69% to spouses and 61% to their bosses.2

Lest you think these figures are an anomaly, confirmation is easily available. Leonard Saxe, a Public Interest award-winning Brandeis University professor and applied social researcher in psychology, describes the ubiquity of lying and calls for the development of a psychology of lying. 3 Psychiatrist Charles V. Ford offers substantial empirical support that “everybody lies” in the realms of dating and the workplace as well as with advertisers, politicians, physicians, and scientists. 4 Shusterman and Saxe explored whether under- graduate students had ever lied to their partners and found that more than 85% admitted that they had lied, mainly over being deceptive about another relationship. 5 A national survey of over 2,000 secretaries in the U.S. and Canada reported that 85% admit they tell lies on the telephone. 6

Recent research on lying by Bella De Paulo and her colleagues found most people lie once or twice a day. Both women and men lie in approximately a fifth of their daily interactions that last 10 minutes or longer. Thus, over the period of a week, they deceive about 30% of the people they interact with on a one-to-one basis. Students admitted to lying an average of twice a day, while community members lied half as often. 7

Interestingly, while both genders lie with equal frequency, men are more likely to tell self-aggrandizing lies, women more commonly tell altruistic lies out of loyalty and sparing another person’s feelings. Possibly women tell lies to foster intimacy and supportiveness in their relations with others. More than 70% of liars would tell their lies again since they did not regard their lies as serious and didn’t plan them much or worry about being caught.8 Patterson and Kim provided further support in reported that two in every three Americans believe that there is nothing wrong with lying. 9

In regard to what the lies concern, Patterson and Kim found that 90% of Americans say that they have told harmless lies 81% about true feelings, 43% about income, 42% about accomplishments, 40% about sex life, 31% about age and 23% about education. DePaulo and her colleagues found that 10% were exaggerations, while 60% were outright deceptions. 10 The remainder were subtle lies, often involving omission. About 1 in 7 instances of lying was discovered, as the liars could best determine. 11 DePaulo has mentioned some preliminary findings that the majority of serious lies that involve deep betrayals of trust occur between people in intimate relationships. 12

Researchers Kashy and DePaulo offer a picture of who lies. Frequent liars tend to be quite manipulative and Machiavellian, not to mention that they see themselves as more successful liars than others. They are socially adroit and concerned with the impression they make on others. Their view of lying is that it is condemned publically yet very widely practiced privately and is an everyday social interaction process: “People tell lies to accomplish the most basic social interaction goals, such as influencing others, managing impressions, and providing reassurance and support.” 13

My estimate is that between 5% to 10%—1 out of 10 to 1 out of 20 people you meet on the average—of the American population is trustworthy across the board of living, using 85% as the cut-off standard. I estimate that the figure may go up to 25% to 50% or more for this population being trustworthy in selected areas, that is, mid-range trustworthiness. I’d be thrilled to find that I’m totally incorrect about both figures, yet life experience, intuition and data tells me it is not.

This brings us to the question: can people who have been untrustworthy become trustworthy and vice versa? Without solid research data I speculate that it is quite uncommon for an untrustworthy person to progressively become trustworthy. Even at that, it would take an event or series of events that would shake that individual down to their core, something on the order of a near-death experience, multiple heart attacks or strokes, or coming face-to-face with themselves and God. Given the layers of defense that are likely to be in place, nothing less than a jolting experience that left you shaken to your toenails would have any chance of breaking through. Even then, it would take hard, disciplined daily work, probably with an excellent teacher, therapist, coach, mentor or wise guide, over an extended period of time to work this miraculous transformation.

In regard to the possibility of a trustworthy individual becoming untrustworthy, I suggest the odds of this occurring are realistically quite small. I think it would be excruciatingly difficult and go so against the grain of personality structure for someone who expressed honesty and integrity to behave in a distrusting and untrustworthy manner. Research results support trustworthy people tending to wash away and overlook times, situations and people they had misplaced their trust in, and thereafter trusting again and again anyway. 14

As the advertisement for the shark movie Jaws says, “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water. . . ,” so it is exceedingly intelligent to look and look again before you leap into the waters of trust with some people. Not all that glitters is gold-some is fool’s gold!

How do you go about making decisions about trusting another? In making decisions or judgments, there are four possibilities: (1) true positive (people who appear to be trustworthy and, in fact, are); (2) true negative (people who appear to be untrustworthy and, in fact, are); (3) false positive (people who appear to be trustworthy and, in fact, are not); and (4) false negative (people who appear to be untrustworthy and, in fact, are not). Our aim with this decision matrix is to maximize the possibility of the first two categories, while minimizing the possibility of the latter two categories.

High trusters are quite vulnerable to making false positive errors, that is, attributing trustworthiness to a person when this is false in reality. Rotter explains:

“…the high truster is no less capable of determining who should be trusted and who should not be trusted, although in novel situations he or she may be more likely to trust others than is the low truster. It may be true that the high truster is fooled more often by crooks, but the low truster is probably fooled equally often by distrusting honest people, thereby forfeiting the benefits that trusting others might bring.” 15

Thus, high trusters are more willing and likely to respect the rights of others and even give them second chances, whether they get burned in this interaction or not. Samuel Johnson once said, “It’s happier to be sometimes cheated than not to trust.”

Low trusters are highly vulnerable to the decision error of false negatives—to think someone is untrustworthy, when this is false in reality. Aeschylus (525-456 B.C.) in Prometheus Bound (line 226) understood this: “For somehow this is tyranny’s disease, to trust no friends.” Because untrustworthy people often lie, George Bernard Shaw had them squarely pegged: “The liar’s punishment…is that he cannot believe anyone else.”

The problem of false negatives is a most difficult one. Take the examples of an innocent person falsely accused or convicted of a crime and the normal-functioning person falsely accused of mental illness or disability. It has been my repeated observation and experience that our society, and especially our criminal justice and mental health systems, has little if any acceptance, structure or procedures for handling false negatives. This creates great difficulty in extricating innocent and normal-functioning people from “the system” once they are enmeshed inside the belly of the beast.

One study offers support for high trusters permitting mistakes and still trusting so long as the mistake is acknowledged and an apology offered. Moreover, even when shown straight-forward evidence of having been tricked, high trusters will continue to give trust! 16 Juliette Binoche, the French movie star who a few years ago won the Academy award for best actress in The English Patient, provides a contemporary example of one who trusts. She was reported as saying, “That’s all you can do when you work in film-trust. Everything is out of your hands, which is rather terrifying…You must trust. And even if you find that trust was misplaced, you wipe it away and trust again.” 17

Is this hypothesized blindspot for high trusters a variation of wearing rose-colored glasses? Very possibly. This approach may also be most efficacious. Julian Rotter admits to aiming to be more trusting by behaving as if he trusted an individual even though he clearly doesn’t, assuming he had no reason to distrust the person. He finds that people typically prove to be worthy of this “pretended trust.” 18 When you bet on someone, they often rise to that level.

“To think for oneself, to find out what is true and stand by it, without being influenced, whatever life my bring of misery or happiness-that is what builds character.” —Jiddu Krishnamurti in Think of These Things


Here’s a true anecdote I’ve heard from several people over the years of how a father went about teaching his son about trust. I’ve taken the liberty to transform and transcend it into a healing encounter, instead of a hurtful betrayal of trust in the guise of offering a protection:

At first a man related how his hurt and angry grandfather had put his father, then an 8-year-old boy, on top of the refrigerator. Grandfather told his son to jump, and he would catch him. After many tears and fears, the boy did jump, but the grandfather did not catch him, bellowing, “TRUST NO ONE!” The present day son interrupted, “How very mean and cruel!” His father wept and agreed saying, “My father told me about this and he said he would never do such a thing.” The boy knew he could trust his honest, promise-keeping father. So he climbed up on the refrigerator and said, “Catch me!” The father did and said, “Trust only those that have earned your honest trust, respect, love and good will, son.” The boy hugged and kissed him for a long time.


I have noticed over and over again that high trusters tend to invest their trust at 100% in people they have little if any information or background on, then end up being hurt, disappointed and angered when those people don’t follow through. It’s like high trusters think, “Because I’m playing with a full deck in life, they must be also.” Incorrect and inaccurate! If you think of every percentage point as a stair, then it’s akin to falling down at least 10 to 15 stairs even with the most trustworthy of souls, and scores more with most others! If you have ever had the misfortune of falling down stairs, then you know this is a highly hazardous activity, one in which you could easily break your bones and even meet your death. Obviously this isn’t a very helpful approach, yet it is extremely common.

It is essential to have solid, workable strategies to intelligently invest trust. Here are four alternative strategies, ranging from liberal to moderate to conservative to ultra-conservative, that progressively protect you better and better. Paradoxically, each strategy offers your “pretended trust” while wisely investing your trust:

The Liberal Strategy: You pretend the person in question is trustworthy and treat them in this fashion. At the same time you start them at 0% and use the five-step approach in applying the two trustworthy-untrustworthy maps of concrete behaviors and personality characteristics. As the person rises on being worthy of trust, you also rise on investing the exact same amount of trust in them, matching the percentage he or she has earned.

The Moderate Strategy: Once again you pretend the person is trustworthy and interact with them in this way. Again you start them at 0% and use the five-step approach with the two maps. As the person rises on being deserving of your trust, you invest half of what the person has earned. At 85% overall or in selected areas, you match them in your trust investment.

The Conservative Strategy: Pretending the person is trustworthy, you show this in your behavior toward them. Again you begin them at 0% and use the five-step approach with both maps. As the person rises you invest nothing until they hit a specific threshold, say 50% or 60%, and then you invest half of the trust that person has earned. When the criterion of 85% is met overall or in selected areas, you match them in what you invest.

The Ultra-Conservative Strategy: You pretend the person is trustworthy and demonstrate this in your interactions with them. Again you commence with the person at 0% and employ the five-step approach with the maps. As the person rises you invest nothing until the criterion of 85% is met overall or in selected areas, then you match their demonstrated trustworthiness with your own trust investment in them.

Each strategy can have its place in your repertoire of trust investment. Which to use, with which person, is your choice. Some people would feel most comfortable using one strategy most of the time given their personality make-up and approach to life. Others would be more comfortable in using greater flexibility in employing different strategy at different times. Flexible high trusters can profitably check not only with the evidence on the maps of trustworthy-untrustworthy, but additionally with their feelings, intuition and gut as well as with God. Depending on this feedback, they can take the level of risk it makes reasonable, emotional, intuitive and spiritual sense to take.

The winds of change are beating at the windowsill once again. Future forecaster and author Alvin Toffler with his wife Heidi see the advent of a new third super civilization threatening the eight to ten millennia old agrarian and the two to three century old industrial super civilizations-the high speed information, communication super civilization. 19 The internet/worldwide web is one of its playing fields and this is impacting trust. The anonymity of “chat rooms” has been the impetus for both marriages and criminal activity, most likely related to flying blind in regard to the dimension of trust.

It’s ironic that in one of the most anonymous, non-personal mediums, two popular sites, eBay and Amazon, have devised an ingenious means to measure interpersonal trust and hold individuals most personally accountable for their actions. Pioneering auction site eBay, along with numerous others since like Amazon, have a built-in structure for buyers and sellers to know each other’s track records in regard to buy and sell transactions using a numerical rating along with subjective comments. In this way potential participants have the opportunity to “look before they leap” into the auction swimming pool with any specific buyer or seller. Given the sheer number of people who have used this service and the high ratings earned by myriad numbers, it is reassuring to know that trustworthy individuals are alive and well, and finding each other! While hardly foolproof with such ratings being voluntary and people’s hesitancy to give negative feedback, it’s a welcome innovation that bears translation into all of life.


1. James Patterson and Peter Kim, The Day America Told the Truth. New York: Plume/Penguin Books USA Inc., 1991.

2. James Patterson and Peter Kim, 1991, pages 45-48, ibid.

3. Leonard Saxe, “Lying: Thoughts of an Applied Social Psychologist,” American Psychologist, 46 (4), April, 1991, pages 409-415.

4. Charles V. Ford, Lies! Lies!! Lies!!!: The Psychology of Deceit. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Press, Inc., 1996, pages 4-18.

5. G. Shusterman, and L. Saxe, Deception in Romantic Relationships, Unpublished manuscript, Brandeis University, 1990.

6. Reported in Los Angeles Times, Life and Style Section, March 10, 1998, page E-2.

7. Bella M. De Paulo, Deborah A. Kashy, Susan E. Kirkendol, Melissa M. Wyer, and Jennifer A. Epstein, “Lying in Everyday Life,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70 (5), 1996, 979-995.

8. Bella M. De Paulo, et al., 1996, ibid.

9. James Patterson and Peter Kim, 1991, ibid.

10. James Patterson and Peter Kim, 1991, ibid.

11. Bella M. De Paulo, et al., 1996, ibid.

12. Reported in Allison Kornet, “The Truth about Lying,” Psychology Today, 30 (3), May/June 1997, pages 53-57/ Reference: pages 54-55.

13. Deborah A. Kashy, and Bella M. DePaulo, “Who Lies?,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70 (5), pages 1037-1051, quote: page 1037.

14. Julian B. Rotter, “Interpersonal Trust, Trustworthiness and Gullibility,” American Psychologist, 35 (1), January, 1980.

15. Julian B. Rotter, 1980, ibid., page 6,

16. M. D. Roberts, The Persistence of Interpersonal Trust, Unpublished Master’s Thesis, University of Connecticut, 1967.

17. Juliette Binoche quote reported in column by Liz Smith, Los Angeles Times, Calendar Section, July 12, 1999, page F-2.

18. Julian B. Rotter, “Trust and Gullibility,” Psychology Today, 25, December, 1992, pages 75-80.

19. Alvin and Heidi Toffler, “Supercivilization and Its Discontents,” Civilization, February/March, 2000, pages 52, 54.

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