Detecting Trustworthiness Takes Just 20 Seconds

This is how long people need to analyze new acquaintances

  Empathy and trustworthiness can be judged within 20 seconds of meeting someone
According to the conclusions of a new investigation by researchers at the University of California in Berkeley (UCB), it takes about 20 seconds for someone to figure out if a person they've just met is trustworthy, compassionate or kind.

According to the conclusions of a new investigation by researchers at the University of California in Berkeley (UCB), it takes about 20 seconds for someone to figure out if a person they've just met is trustworthy, compassionate or kind.

What people actually detect is a genetic predisposition to either fulfill these criteria or not. The realization is not necessarily conscious in the strictest sense, but most individuals put to the test get a distinct feeling if they should trust the person in front of them or not.

This is the first study to put a time frame on the length of time it takes for people to make these judgments. During this brief interval, the amount of neural processing done is astounding, experts say.

What these results imply is that humans have the natural capacity to figure out which of the people they meet are likely to stick around when things get tough, and also which of them they can confide to.

At the same time, the UCB group believes that the data may be used to create a new series of therapies aimed at helping people who were born without the ability to feel sympathy for others. While, in some cases, this is an acquired “skill,” more often than not it is a mental disorder.

“It’s remarkable that complete strangers could pick up on who’s trustworthy, kind or compassionate in 20 seconds when all they saw was a person sitting in a chair listening to someone talk,” explains the lead author of the new investigation, Aleksandr Kogan.

The expert is currently completing postdoctoral studies at the University of Toronto in Mississauga. He says that, during the experiments, his group recruited 24 couples, and asked all of them to give DNA samples for study.

After this was done, one of the partners was asked to speak of a time when they had suffered, while the other was made to listen to a recording of the other's speech. At the same time, the researchers were filming the person doing the listening.

These videos were then cut in 20-second segments, and showed to a group of viewers who were selected so that they did not know any of the members in the 24 couples. Researchers asked members of the latter group to determine which of the listeners was the most trustworthy, kind and compassionate.

Interestingly, the listeners who were voted as most empathic all possessed a special variant of the GC genotype, which is an oxytocin receptor gene. This result puzzled experts because there is nothing on a person's face that can relay their internal genetic makeup. Or is there?

“People can’t see genes, so there has to be something going on that is signaling these genetic differences to the strangers,” Kogan explains. Details of the investigation appear in the November 14 online issue of the esteemed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

“What we found is that the people who had two copies of the G version displayed more trustworthy behaviors – more head nods, more eye contact, more smiling, more open body posture. And it was these behaviors that signaled kindness to the strangers,” the expert goes on to say.

Oxytocin is a hormone that modulates moods and behaviors in the brain, as well as physical processes. Experts also know that it is involved in social aspects such as pair bonding, anxiety, social recognition and maternal behaviors.

“What ultimately makes us kind and cooperative is a mixture of numerous genetic and non-genetic factors. No one gene is doing the trick. Instead, each of these many forces is a thread pulling a person in one direction or another, and the oxytocin receptor gene is one of these threads,” Kogan concludes.


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