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You Look Like Someone I Can Trust!

PGP Mediation Blog by Phyllis G. Pollack

When our mother was alive, she used to tell the story that about six weeks after my eldest sister was born, my mother boarded a crowded war time train with my sister in her arms to meet my father then stationed in Nebraska in the Army.  Suddenly realizing she had left the diaper bag with her mother who was standing on the platform, she handed my sister to a stranger to hold, got off the train to grab the diaper bag from her mother, got back on and retrieved my sister from the stranger. In retrospect, she was horrified at what she had done: handing my sister to a stranger to look after for a few minutes, never thinking that something might happen to my sister in those few moments.

It seems that my mother was not alone in trusting strangers.  In a January 29, 2018 post entitled This Is Why You Trust Some strangers and Not Others, Brandon Specktor, Senior Writer at, notes that researchers have found that our ability to trust strangers depends on how much they resemble others that we know to be trustworthy or not so trustworthy. (Id.) In short, it is an “appearance” bias that operates like the Pavlovian response we all learned about in school.  If a stranger even minimally resembles someone we do not trust, we will unconsciously not trust the stranger even though we know nothing about her.

To reach this conclusion, Oriel FeldmanHall, an assistant professor in Brown University’s Department of Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences, conducted a study with her colleagues in which they recruited 91 participants to play a computerized trust game:

The participants were given $10 to invest with three potential “partners,” each of whom was represented by a different headshot on a computer screen. Any money invested with a partner was automatically quadrupled (a $2.50 investment with any partner would yield a $10 return, for example), at which point the partner could either split the profit with the player or keep it all.

As each participant discovered, one partner was always highly trustworthy (split the profits 93 percent of the time), one was somewhat trustworthy (reciprocated 60 percent of the time) and one was untrustworthy (reciprocated 7 percent of the time). Over several rounds of play, the participants quickly learned which partners could be trusted and which could not, the researchers said.

After being conditioned with these trustworthy and untrustworthy faces, each participant played a second game with a new group of potential investment partners. Unbeknownst to the players, many of the new faces they saw were morphed versions of their same partners from the initial game. When the players were again asked to pick an investment partner, they consistently chose the faces that most closely resembled the trustworthy partner from the previous game and rejected the faces that most resembled the untrustworthy partner.  (Id.)

Based on this experiment, the researchers concluded that we make decisions about whether we can trust a stranger solely based on whether they look like someone we know and trust or someone we know and distrust.  This is so, even though we have no direct or indirect information about the person before asking them to do us a favor and “watch” our stuff while we are waiting at an airport gate to board a plane and want to go to the restroom or grab a coffee. (Id.) As the article concludes, it seems that our past experiences embedded deep into our unconscious guides the choices we make in the future; to trust someone we do not even know to watch “our stuff” or in my mother’s case, my older sister.

A moment’s reflection will reveal that this “appearance” bias plays out in resolving disputes. If the other side resembles someone from our past that we deemed trustworthy, no doubt the matter will be more easily settled. In contrast, if the other side reminds us of a “scoundrel” from our past, we will unwittingly and unconsciously, not trust a word she says, making any settlement more difficult. In sum, appearances do matter… in more ways than we realize!

…. Just something to think about.


Phyllis Pollack

Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as… MORE >

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