Learning Lab

Behind The Scenes at a Recent Training

Last week saw the arrival of the much anticipated taster training day developed by the partnership of the Wales Centre for Behaviour Change and Synaptic Potential. Delegates from a variety of Welsh SMEs were introduced to some of the latest trends and research in business practice, under the umbrella title ‘The Model Employee’ (#me14). A broad cross section of fields were represented: Behaviour Change (Philip Nelson, @PhilipN_WCBC), Positive Psychology (Frederique Murphy, @IrishSmiley), Acceptance and Commitment Practice (Amy Hulson-Jones, @hulsonjones), and Design Thinking (Shem ap Geraint, @shemKSW).

In my session for the training day I spoke about the importance of trust and its neural underpinnings, which for me is a key factor in any successful business and its leaders. In this piece I will outline the key points I made in the presentation.

Trust is an important consideration in any organisation. This is obvious in high-risk activities, such as construction and fishing, where safety is paramount and being able to trust equipment and colleagues is in some cases essential for survival. But even low-risk activities depend on trust ‚ just think of how a sports team’s success is affected when trust breaks down. Humans are unique in the way that we seem to be predisposed to trust others. We will often put ourselves at risk for the sake of non-family members, even though the chances of being rewarded for doing so are not immediately obvious. Stories of heroic behaviour abound, from firemen rescuing people from burning buildings to ordinary citizens sheltering targets of genocide. This ‘reciprocal altruism’, although not absent entirely, is rarely found in other animals. Though other animals may work co-operatively to achieve a common goal (such as a pride of lions working together to catch prey), they tend to do so only given the prospect of an immediate reward.

Such altruistic behaviours create relationships that are inherently unstable in outcome. Good deeds can be accepted and not returned, for example. I began my session on trust with a version of the Trust Game. Pervasive in psychological studies, particularly in game theory, the Trust Game is used to explore decision-making in sharing resources and altruism. The delegates were divided into two groups, Group A and B. Those in Group A had written instructions informing them they had just received ¬£500 and were asked if they would share their winnings with someone in Group B and, if so, how much. This amount was then passed randomly to members of Group B, who in turn were asked if they would like to return to Group A any of the money they had (or had not!) received. Now it was tempting for those in Group A to keep all the money they had been given, and likewise for Group B. And some did. Yet a surprisingly large number of people returned half of their windfall and a small number even returned all of it. Research seems to support this outcome: most people return 50% of the money they are given. Why would we behave so ‘irrationally’, when lack of reciprocation is strongly exhibited in other animals?

Humans have complex group behaviours, and social influences are very powerful in groups such as organisations. Being selfish may result in short-term wins, but in the long term this strategy will no doubt be harmful and probably lead to social exclusion. (We have mechanisms that rapidly detect ‘freeloaders’ and inhibit cooperation with them.) Being trusted and working cooperatively is rewarding (Tabibnia and Lieberman showed activation in brain regions associated with reward), and this may outweigh the impulsive selfish desires. Research also shows that breaking a promise requires cognitive effort (the ‘cool system’, if you’ve been following this series), whereas keeping a promise is our natural choice (‘hot system’).

So can we build trust? Unfortunately initial determinations seem to be beyond our control, as people make rapid judgments of trust based on facial characteristics. This makes sense, as being able to assess someone’s trustworthiness very rapidly is a valuable evolutionary trait. An important factor emerges when you consider an aspect of the Trust Game I mentioned earlier. People in Group B were not initially told how much Group A had been given. How do you think it changed their way of thinking when they were? Knowing that someone received ¬£500 and gave you nothing leads to some interesting reactions. Fairness clearly emerges as a core component of trust building. In fact, our sense of fairness is so keen that we will sometimes sacrifice our own possible reward in order to prevent someone else from receiving an unfair more favourable outcome. And in consumer research, equity has been shown to be the strongest predictor of customer satisfaction.

In the book ‘The Trusted Advisor’, Maister and colleagues outline a ‘trustworthiness formula’ that may be used to work on trustworthiness:

Trustworthiness = (Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy) √∑ Self-orientation

Maister essentially maintains that developing trust requires people to be credible (they should be knowledgeable in the aspect they are requiring trust for), reliable (their actions should match their commitments), intimate (they should be able to make emotional connections) and not be too self-oriented (their motives should not be overly selfish).

How do you fare on these measures?

Until next time,

– the Neuropsyguy –



Battalio, R. C., Kagel, J. H., & MacDonald, D. N. (1985). Animals’ choices over uncertain outcomes: Some initial experimental results. American Economic Review, 75(4), 597–613.

Maister, D. H., Green, C. H., & Galford, R. M. (2000). The Trusted Advisor. Simon and Schuster.

Rezlescu, C., Duchaine, B., Olivola, C. Y., & Chater, N. (2012). Unfakeable Facial Configurations Affect Strategic Choices in Trust Games with or without Information about Past Behavior. PLoS ONE, 7(3), e34293. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0034293

Rilling, J. K., & Sanfey, A. G. (2011). The neuroscience of social decision-making. Annual Review of Psychology, 62, 23–48.

Tabibnia, G., & Lieberman, M. D. (2007). Fairness and cooperation are rewarding. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1118(1), 90–101.

Tabibnia, G., Satpute, A. B., & Lieberman, M. D. (2008). The sunny side of fairness preference for fairness activates reward circuitry (and disregarding unfairness activates self-control circuitry). Psychological Science, 19(4), 339–347.


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