Feeling morally obligated to show respect for someone else's character may have more to do when it comes to trusting a stranger than actually believing the person, researchers believe.
Researchers including lead author David Dunning, PhD, of Cornell University, conducted six experiments involving 645 university students, 311 from Cornell and 334 from Cologne University in Germany. Across four of the experiments that used a behavioral test known as the "trust game," a total of 62 percent of participants trusted by giving money to a stranger who could keep it or give back a larger amount than he or she had been given.
The study used variations of the trust game, which involves two people who don't know each other. One participant begins with a small amount of money, such as 5 dollars. First, that person is asked whether he wishes to keep the money or give it to a stranger, who is the second participant. The first person is told that if he gives the money away, it will be increased by a certain factor, such as by four, resulting in 20 dollars. The second participant can keep the entire 20 dollars or give 10 dollars back to the first participant. Both players know the rules of the game and they remain anonymous to each other following the study.
Another experiment gave participants three options: keep the 5 dollars, give away the 5 dollars and trust the other person to share, or give the 5 dollars to the other person with the understanding that she would flip a coin to determine who would get the money. The majority of students (54 percent) opted to trust the other participant to share, while 24 percent kept the money and 22 percent had the other participant flip the coin.
The study has been published in APA's Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.