How does being trusted make you feel?  So much of contemporary life seems designed to make you feel distrusted:  The big-box employee checking your receipt as you leave the store.  The piles of legal boilerplate firms will make you sign to prove you’re going to keep your mouth shut about their trade secrets.  The keylogger your employer installs on your work computer to make sure you’re not goofing off.

Late last year, though, I had a very different experience at a Stella’s near my office on campus.  After having lunch, I went to pay, and found that the store’s debit-credit machine was on the fritz.  Having no cash on me, I was in a bind.  I started suggesting options — I could leave my driver’s license as collateral and run to an ABM, and then — when the server cut me off.  “Don’t worry about it.  Just give me a call with your card number later, and we’ll run it through then.”  I asked whether she wanted to write down my name, or take a business card.  No on both fronts.  I ate my meal, left without paying, and they took my promise to settle up at face value.

After calling in to pay, I asked the manager about what usually happened when this kind of problem occurred.  Some customers would sprint to an ATM while others would take weeks to pay it back, but only two people in the manager’s memory had ever failed outright to return and pay for their meal.

There’s less research than there ought to be about mutual trust and feeling trusted (most research still focuses on why we trust others, rather than the experience of being trusted), but the evidence suggests that there are some pretty substantial benefits to making people feel trusted.

Sabrina Deutsch Salamon, for instance, looked at employees in 88 retail stores.  When employees collectively felt that they were trusted by their managers, they were more likely to endorse “responsibility norms” (feeling accountable for the store, for instance).  These responsibility norms, in turn, predicted the employees’ performance in sales and customer-service.

Of course, there’s a Pygmalion effect at play:  Those who are trusted are more likely to be charged with the resources and tools to do a good job.  But there’s also a powerful influence of others’ expectations on our own choices.  When we’re presumed to be shoplifters, swindlers and slackers, we feel less bad engaging in those behaviours.  But when people show their trust in us, we often respond by trying to prove them right; trying to show that the unearned trust placed in us is in fact warranted.

Teaching this term, of course, this leaves me with a challenge.  Exams and quizzes, being beset by issues of cheating and plagiarism, have developed an apparatus around them to monitor and control student behaviour.  The message that is very clearly sent is this:  You aren’t to be trusted, and we’re keeping an eye on you.   If you reflect on your own work, in what subtle ways do you communicate to those around you that they are trusted or distrusted?

Related:  Trust and the Crunchpad