SCIENCE
05/17/2014 08:36 am ET | Updated May 17, 2014

Game-Playing Study Reveals Ironic Reason We Trust Strangers

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It's one thing to trust someone you know, but quite another to trust a perfect stranger. And yet every day we trust people we've never met, from bank tellers and barbers to cashiers and even the people who care for our children.

But why do we trust people we don't even know?

A new study suggests we're inclined to trust perfect strangers because we'd feel perfectly awful -- wracked by guilt -- if we didn't trust them.

Trusting others is what people think they should do and emotions such as anxiety or guilt associated with not fulfilling a social duty or responsibility may account for much of the excessive trust observed between strangers every day," study co-author Dr. David Dunning, a psychology professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., said in a written statement.

For the study, Dunning and his colleagues conducted six experiments in which 645 university students from both Cornell University and Cologne University in Germany played variations of a behavior test known as the "trust game." In the game, people are asked to decide whether to trust a stranger with a small amount of money in different scenarios.

For instance, in one experiment, participants had to make one of two decisions. One, keep a small amount of money, such as $5. Or, try their luck at earning double by handing $20 over to a stranger who could either keep the entire amount or give half back to the participant . Another experiment had the same options, but if the participant decided to hand the larger amount of money to a stranger, that stranger was required to flip a coin to determine whether to return half -- instead of making the decision autonomously.

What did the researchers find? People were more likely to hand over the money to a stranger and trust that they'd return half than hand over the money in the coin-flip scenario. Before each experiment, the participants completed a questionnaire, allowing the researchers to connect the participants' behavior with feeling morally obligated to trust strangers.

“Trust is crucial not just for established relationships, it’s also especially vital between strangers within social groups who have no responsibility toward each other outside of a single, transitory interaction. eBay or farmers’ markets couldn’t exist without trust among strangers," Dunning said.

This new study published online in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology on May 12, 2014.

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