I am a behavioral scientist.  This is when I know I shouldn’t trust someone

I am a behavioral scientist. This is when I know I shouldn’t trust someone

Trust is the psychological foundation of the human species. When it’s there, we don’t think much about it; it just works, as it has for millions of years. But when it disappears, cracks begin to emerge and the once-strong structures of our relationships and society crumble.

It’s safe to say that on a societal level, the cracks are starting to show. There is a general skepticism in the current climate towards our social and cultural institutions. The Edelman Trust Barometer shows that events of corporate malfeasance, government corruption, and fake news are disrupting the social contract and breaking trust en masse.

A feeling of general mistrust in the air is sure to have an effect on our trust in others. It goes from “What can I trust?” to “Who can I trust?”

To trust or not to trust?

At this point, you might want me to steer this article in the direction of: “This is how we can work together to restore trust within our institutions and with each other.”

A lovely sentiment to be sure. But, a bit Pollyannaish, don’t you think? And the fact is that there are people who cannot be trusted. In which case, you need to be equipped with the proper tools to tell friend from foe. He helped our ancestors, he will also help you.

In relationships, trust is involved in two types of scenarios. The first, and most obvious, is when someone does something explicit in her behavior to break your trust. They screw you over, throw you under the bus, catch you red-handed in a trap or a lie.

The second scenario is more interesting. These are the most covert scenarios that go unnoticed by the trust. You know the ones who have a “bad feeling” about a person for no particular reason. They haven’t done anything to you. But the feeling persists. In these particular cases, deciding whether someone can be trusted is less about ‘knowing’ and more about ‘perceiving’.

Something happens… but what is it?

Detection is not a mystical spider-sense phenomenon, but a brain calculation. The human brain has developed what psychologists call a cheater detection system, a highly sensitive set of psychological responses that let us unconsciously “know” when someone can’t be trusted.

The system is constantly on the lookout for subtle cues during a social exchange that might betray a person’s true intentions. When enough of these inputs trigger the system, the brain computes an assessment, leaving you with that “sneaky feeling” that a person can’t be trusted.

What are these subtle signs?

Recent research evidence suggests that there are 4 nonverbal behaviors that, when performed together, act as a reliable signal of lack of confidence. According to research, the 4 subtle behaviors include: i) hand movement, ii) face touching, iii) leaning in, and iv) crossing arms.

What’s key here is that none of these in and of themselves predict unreliability. As lead researcher Professor David DeSteno comments: “If someone leans the other way, is it because they’re distancing themselves from you or because their back hurts? You can’t really tell when that’s a signal.” But as the evidence suggests, all four signals in combination herald a lack of trust: the more often people perform this set of actions, the less trustworthy their behavior becomes.

Until the utopian society of total trust is achieved, it would be wise for you to be aware of these 4 subtle non-verbal cues. Keep an eye out for them the next time you get that “feeling” for someone. Just make sure the sentiment isn’t directed at you…and whatever you do, avoid fiddling with your hands, touching your face, bending over, and crossing your arms.

Opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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