I’m a Behavioral Scientist. This is When I Know Not to 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’s gone, the cracks begin to emerge, and the once-strong structures of our relationships and society crumble.

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

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

To trust, or not to trust? 

At this point, you may want me to take this piece in the direction of: “This is how we can work together to regain trust within our institutions and within each other”.

A lovely sentiment to be sure. But, a bit pollyannaish, don’t you think? And the fact is, there are people out there who can’t be trusted. In which case, you should be equipped with the right tools to figure out friend from foe. It helped our ancestors, it’ll help you, too. 

In relationships, trust is implicated in two types of scenarios. First, which is the most obvious, is when someone does something explicit in their behavior to break your trust. They screw you over, throw you under the bus, get caught red-handed in a cheat or a lie. 

The second scenario is more interesting. These are the more covert scenarios that fly under the trust radar. You know the ones: where you 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 instances, deciding whether you can trust someone is less about ‘knowing’ and more about ‘sensing’.

Something’s up … but what is it? 

The sensing is not a mystical, spidey-sense phenomenon, but a brain computation. The human brain evolved what psychologists call a cheater detection system, a highly sensitive suite of psychological responses that allow us to unconsciously “know” when someone can’t be trusted.

The system is constantly on the look-out 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 evaluation, leaving you with that “sneaky feeling” that a person can’t be trusted.

What are these subtle cues?

Recent research evidence is suggesting there are 4 nonverbal behaviors that, when done together, act as a reliable signal of untrustworthiness. According to the research, the 4 subtle behaviors include: i) hand fidgeting, ii) face touching, iii) leaning away, and iv) crossing arms.

What’s key here is that not a single one of these in themselves is predictive of untrustworthiness. As the lead researcher, Prof. David DeSteno comments, “If someone is leaning away, is it because they are distancing themselves from you, or does their back hurt? You can’t really tell when it’s one cue.” But as the evidence suggests, the four cues in combination advertise untrustworthiness: The more often people perform these sets of actions, the less trustworthy their behavior was.

Until the utopian society of total trust is achieved, it would be wise of you to know these 4 subtle nonverbal cues. Be on the look-out for them the next time you get that “feeling” about someone. Just make sure the feeling isn’t directed to you … and, whatever you do, avoid fidgeting with your hands, touching your face, leaning away, and crossing your arms.

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

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