Who can you trust? Look for the tendency to anticipate guilt

By Liz Meszaros, MDLinx
Published August 20, 2018

Key Takeaways

People who are more likely to anticipate guilt before committing a known transgression may be more trustworthy than people without an anticipation of guilt, according to results from a recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

"Trust and trustworthiness are critical for effective relationships and effective organizations. Individuals and institutions incur high costs when trust is misplaced, but people can mitigate these costs by engaging in relationships with individuals who are trustworthy," wrote researchers, led by lead author Emma E. Levine, PhD, assistant professor, Behavioral Science and Charles E. Merrill Faculty Scholar, University of Chicago Booth School of Business, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL. “Our findings fill a significant gap in the trust literature by building a foundation for investigating trustworthiness, by identifying a trait predictor of trustworthy intentions and behavior, and by providing practical advice for deciding in whom we should place our trust.”

But anticipation of guilt is different than guilt, a subtle but important difference, they noted and called this tendency ”guilt-proneness.” The trait of guilt-proneness is different than actual guilt.

With guilt, reparative behavior comes after a transgression. Guilt-proneness is an anticipation of guilt before committing a transgression and may cause the guilt-prone person to avoid committing the transgression at all.

Levine and fellow researchers found that this guilt-proneness is the strongest predictor of how trustworthy a person is, even more effectively than the “Big Five” personality traits, including extraversion, openness, agreeableness, neuroticism, and conscientiousness.

They conducted six studies in which they used economic games and surveys to measure trustworthy behavior and intentions. Subjects who had high scores for the personality trait of guilt-proneness returned more money to others than those who scored low in guilt-proneness.

In the second and third studies, Levine and colleagues observed that a person’s guilt-proneness predicts both their benevolence and integrity-based trustworthy behavior. In the final study, they found that subjects who were given a code of conduct to read were more likely to return money to others than those who read about the importance of looking out for themselves.

People with high guilt-proneness seem to have a greater sense of interpersonal responsibility when they are entrusted to do something, and thus, less likely to exploit this trust from others.

"Our research suggests that if you want your employees to be worthy of trust, make sure they feel personally responsible for their behavior and that they expect to feel guilty about wrongdoing," said Levine. The authors concluded: “Our findings extend the substantial literature on trust by deepening our understanding of trustworthiness: When deciding in whom to place trust, trust the guilt-prone.”

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