The Biological Necessity of Trust
Trust is among several psychological traits that have profound influence on the very foundation of human society, and it is essential for building cooperation and forming relationships that aid in the continuation of our species. Without a certain sense of trust, we would be unable to navigate our way through the world, display debilitating levels of anxiety, and perceive all other members of our species as potential threats, which would reduce our chances of mating and passing along our genes.
Emerging research also shows that individuals who display higher levels of trust are more protected against social pain, meaning they are less likely to be deterred by negative or unfavorable social encounters. Social pain is correlated with increased activity of the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, and experiments with Japanese undergraduates have shown that the particular regions of the prefrontal cortex critical for regulating social pain in this area are more active in people who possess higher levels of general trust.1
Far from merely being the subject of popular romantic fiction these days, the manipulation of trust—for better or worse—has become increasingly important to business managers, politicians, and the like now that science has begun to unravel the neurological components of the social phenomenon.
A 2011 study by Kang et al. examined the effects of physical temperature on trust behaviors. In the behavioral portion of their experiment, participants were primed with either hot or cold hand packs before engaging in an economic trust game. Those primed with the cold packs were less trustful of their anonymous partners than those primed with warm packs. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, the authors also found increased activity in the left anterior insula region when trust decisions were preceded by priming with a cold pack. 2 The results of the study may help to explain why we feel uneasy when shaking the cold, clammy hand of a stranger or why we prefer visiting friends with warm, cozy homes.
In addition to our external surroundings, the internal milieu also greatly influences the development and expression of interpersonal trust. Individuals who have suffered unilateral damage to the amygdala display increased benevolent behavior in the aforementioned trust game, even in response to partners who have betrayed them.3 Similarly, one might further develop an argument for the role of an overactive amygdala (also involved in processing fear-related information) in shaping the behaviors of individuals with depression, who often have trouble trusting those closest to them and may be incapable of forming new social bonds at times.
Trust and Oxytocin
While manipulation of trust using chemical means may seem like the subject of science-fiction cinema, the possibility is real to some extent. Intranasal administration of oxytocin, the hormone involved in building that long-desired human connection, enhances feelings of trust toward others, including both those within one’s social group and those outside of the group. Variations in the gene responsible for encoding the oxytocin receptor can also help to explain why some people seem to be much more gullible (and easily manipulated) than others, at least when it comes to trusting others: Individuals whose receptor genes possess two guanine nucleotides instead of one or none tend to exhibit higher levels of trust behavior. 4,5
Of course, there are other emerging methods aimed at manipulating trust behavior, with much less insidious objectives.
Trust and Synchrony
Dance/movement therapies are based on the notion that the body and mind are intimately connected and emphasize the importance of synchronized movement in creating a simultaneous experiencing of the world for multiple participants.
Dancers, musicians, soldiers, and even some professional athletes have long been aware of the power of the human connection that results from moving in perfect synchrony with another person. Even in virtual interactions, the development of synchrony has been shown to positively influence trust and cooperation amongst individuals. 6
As an individual on the autism spectrum, I have found it difficult to form social connections with my peers, and before I became aware of the scientific basis of my feelings, I always felt closest to other members of my college drumline (and later to other dancers) when we were moving in perfect unison. Perhaps then there is hope for individuals struggling to develop a deeper connection with the people in their lives. By learning to move with another person, we can learn to think with them—to better understand their unique experience of the world.
In addition to becoming more comfortable and learning to trust others, we learn to work with them, leading to positive results on a much more global level. Perhaps one day companies, organizations, and schools will focus more on icebreakers that develop this type of connection rather than on our favorite flavors of ice cream.
- Yanagisawa et al. (2011). Does higher general trust serve as a psychosocial buffer against social pain? An NIRS study of social exclusion. Social Neuroscience 6(2): 190-197.
- Kang et al. (2011). Physical temperature effects on trust behavior: the role of insula. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 6(4): 507-515.
- Koscik & Tranel. (2011). The human amygdala is necessary for developing and expressing normal interpersonal trust. Neuropsychologia 49(4): 602-611.
- Krueger et al. (2012). Oxytocin Receptor Genetic Variation Promotes Human Trust Behavior. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 6(4).
- Van IJzendoorn & Batermans-Kranenburg. (2012). A sniff of trust: Meta-analysis of the effects of intranasal oxytocin administration on face recognition, trust to in-group, and trust to out-group. Psychoneuroendocrinology 37(3): 438-443.
- Launay et al. (2012). Synchronization can influence trust following virtual interaction. Experimental Psychology. DOI: 10.1027/1618-3169/a000173