Source: Rawpixel/Pixabay (Modifications: Arash Emamzadeh)
Who can you trust? Who is trustworthy? Perhaps you are a trusting person yourself and have trusted many. Or maybe there is only one or two people that you are willing to trust with your deepest secrets. What makes someone—among your relatives, friends, coworkers, and neighbors—worthy of your trust and faith? Would you describe that person as honest? Friendly? Kind? Generous?
In a recent paper, published in the September issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Levine and colleagues report the results of a series of experiments, with the conclusion that guilt-proneness is one of the strongest predictors of trustworthiness. Furthermore, the association between guilt-proneness and trustworthiness appears to be mediated by the individual’s sense of responsibility.1
Before we review the results of the study, let us briefly discuss the concepts of trust and guilt-proneness.
[Trust] is important because it allows us to form relationships with people and to depend on them…especially when we know that no outside force compels them to give us such things. But trust also involves the risk that people we trust will not pull through for us; for, if there were some guarantee that they would pull through, then we would have no need to trust them.2
There is a difference between trust and trustworthiness. To trust someone is to allow oneself to become vulnerable to potential exploitation by that person; trustworthiness, however, refers to “the propensity to fulfill another’s positive implicit or explicit expectations regarding a particular action.”1
To be trustworthy, then, is to recognize another person’s expectations, and to feel responsible for fulfilling them. For instance, a trustworthy therapist/blogger is one who recognizes that her readers have certain expectations about the accuracy and helpfulness of her blog posts; furthermore, she also feels responsible for fulfilling those expectations.
What predicts trustworthiness? One candidate, is the personality trait of guilt-proneness.
While guilt evokes the desire to repair the harm after a wrongdoing, guilt-proneness is related to the expectation of experiencing guilt in future and is thus associated with avoidance of wrongdoing in the first place.
The authors of the present paper hypothesized that guilt-prone individuals have a strong sense of responsibility and, therefore, are very trustworthy.
That guilt-prone people are not highly prosocial all the time, but act prosocially when others are depending on them. Why? Because a guilt-prone individual is aware that another, by having trusted her, has made himself vulnerable. In other words, she is sensitive to what the other person anticipates, and so feels responsible to meet the other person’s expectations.
The current research
To examine these assumptions empirically, Levine et al. conducted a series of experiments, using economic trust games and survey questions.
What is a trust game? During the standard trust game, a person is given some money which she can either keep or pass to another person (the trustee). If she chooses to give the money to the trustee, the money multiplies; on the other hand, the trustee might choose to keep all the money and not give any of it back to the truster. Obviously, then, these games depend on how much the first person trusts the second.
Aside from the trust games, the current studies also utilized various measures to assess personality, guilt-proneness, sense of responsibility, trust, and other relevant variables.
What follows is a very brief summary of the findings of each study: The data from the first study (on 401 adults) showed that more guilt-prone participants had more trustworthy intentions and were more likely to act in a trustworthy manner during the trust game.
In the next two studies, on 139 and 399 adults, respectively, the participants’ guilt-proneness (in comparison to other personality characteristics) was more predictive of benevolent-based and integrity-based trustworthy behavior in two trust games.
The fourth study (on 292 adults) helped rule out other mechanisms that could potentially explain the relation between trustworthiness and guilt-proneness—mechanisms such as anticipation of happiness/pride, or anticipation of guilt (when acting in an untrustworthy manner). Only an individual’s sense of responsibility could explicate the relation between trustworthiness and guilt-proneness.
Study 5 (on 402 adults) concluded that the influence of guilt-proneness on trustworthiness is moderated by the truster’s level of vulnerability. In other words, in trust games, guilt-prone participants were not more generous all the time but only when they were socially expected to (i.e. when trusters had passed a lot of money to them and had thus made themselves more vulnerable).
In the last investigation (on 552 adults), Levine et al. observed that codes of conduct that made responsibility salient, increased interpersonal responsibility (and trustworthiness) in both low and high guilt-prone participants.
Previous research had suggested that various personality traits (e.g., honesty, humility, unconditional kindness, generosity, etc) were predictive of trustworthiness. More frequently, trait agreeableness (characteristic of those who are friendly, sympathetic, and cooperative) was also linked to trustworthiness.
But the present research suggests that compared to other personality traits (including agreeableness), guilt-proneness is even a better predictor of trustworthiness. People who are prone to guilt can be trusted because, in anticipation of feeling guilty, they try their best to avoid wrongdoings. And that makes them worthy of trust. In the words of the authors, “When deciding in whom to place trust, trust the guilt-prone.”