What Might Make You Trust a Stranger?


by David DiSalvo

It comes as no surprise that people tend to prefer others of the same in-group. If you’re a diehard supporter of a political candidate and someone drives by with a bumper sticker endorsing the candidate, you feel a hint of “inness” with that person. If someone drives by with a bumper sticker of the candidate’s opponent, you feel a twinge of “otherness” about that person.  If asked why, you might say that the first person probably shares many of your views and you’re on the same team, more or less. The second driver is showing with the opponent’s bumper sticker that she’s on the other team.  In effect, you feel a sense of in-group trust with the first person that you don’t feel with the second.

But why, exactly, trust a stranger any more than another stranger if you don’t really know either of them?  That question was addressed in a study in the April issue of Psychological Science.  The study begins by establishing two possible bases for group-based trust. The first is stereotyping — people tend to judge in-group members as nicer, more helpful, generous, trustworthy and fair. The second is expectation — people tend to expect relatively better treatment from in-group members because they are thought to value, and want to further, other in-group members’ interests.

Study participants were offered a choice between an unknown sum of money from an in-group member or an out-group member (and were told that the in-group and out-group members controlled the amount of money to allocate as they desired).  The initial result was that participants overwhelmingly chose the in-group member option.  And, surprisingly, this result held true even when the stereotype of the in-group was more negative than that of the out-group. Good, bad or indifferent, the stereotype was ignored in favor of group identity. 

But, when participants were told that the in-group money giver didn’t know they were part of the same group, the situation changed.  When this was the case, participants resorted to making their choice on the basis of stereotype.  If the in-group was portrayed negatively, then the participants were more likely to choose the out-group member option, and visa versa.

So this study suggests that when members of the in-group are mutually aware of their inness, there’s an expectation of better treatment than would be received from an out-grouper. But when that awareness is muddied, reliance on stereotypes kicks in. 

This analysis gets really interesting when focused on electronic communication. Online, most people are not aware of others’ inness or outness. According to the results of this study, in these cases we’d expect most people to rely on group stereotypes when deciding who to trust (follow, read, etc), and social networking provides fertile ground to test this hypothesis in real-time.

Foddy, M., Platow, M., & Yamagishi, T. (2009). Group-Based Trust in Strangers: The Role of Stereotypes and Expectations Psychological Science, 20 (4), 419-422 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02312.x


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Filed under About Belief, About Perception, About Research

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