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Trust: What Does The Research Say?

I was recently in the unenviable situation of having to advise someone that, no, I wouldn’t simply accept an other's judgment when it comes to selecting someone for a pretty cool, career enhancing opportunity. Nor would I sign off on accepting a potential candidate even after chatting to him/her by phone or by Skype, as I wouldn't have had the opportunity to observe their actions over time - that is, when they were behaving without any awareness of the possibility of a reward.

Say, what?

Yes, it’s true. You know, how I make decisions these days? By silently observing people’s behaviour over a period of time rather than by listening to what they say and/or looking for cues in their demeanor or voice. I know better than to just listen to a great story, because I’ve been fooled. My default setting is “no trust” and still there have been cases where I have over-ridden that default to my own regret. The single best example was when I received a warning from an academic colleague, who said about the head of another organization, "he'll use you while it serves his purposes, and then he'll discard you when he decides he doesn't need you any more." I opted not to take her experience into account and proceeded to override my own feelings of unease for some smooth talk and the possibilities of a fruitful collaboration. Two years later, what she predicted would happen based on her own experience is exactly what happened ... again.

You don't need to take my experiences as the veritable font of truth on this trusting stuff, because, fortunately, we have research. Indeed, there’s an entire body of experimental research on deception that is critical for any police officer to familiarize themselves with. What I’m most interested in is called “the truth default theory” and it’s the work of a social scientist by the name of Tim Levine*. In a nutshell, Levine’s experiments demonstrate that people tend to have an innate bias towards believing others. He calls this the “truth default.” Likely there is some strong evolutionary basis for this. After all, humans survived and evolved as a result of both competition and cooperation, the latter of which requires a degree of trust in others. Most of the time, Levine argues, we are right: people are telling the truth and thus this bias works in our favour. However, it also makes us highly susceptible to those who would lie, dissemble and/or otherwise shade the truth.

Levine’s research not only provides insights into how we can be fooled, but also into how we can improve our ability to detect deceit more readily. One way: to pay less attention to what we perceive to be honesty “cues”. Such cues can mislead due to cultural, situational, personal and other factors.

It’s funny, despite the fact that much of the criminal justice system is predicated on the axiom that ‘past behaviour is the strongest indicator of future behaviour’, it’s been my experience that a surprising number of police officers still believe in the infallibility of their own personal assessments of individuals based on how people act in an one-on-one situation - a perception not based on science but on their personal experience, a course at CPC or the FBI Academy and/or their "years of service."

Indeed I've witnessed several instances in which a police officer has said to me of some complete jerk*** colleague, “he’s such a nice guy” or “Well, I like her”. Usually, this is said about somebody they barely know beyond a coffee or a committee meeting, but I've actually worked with (and thus have observed a tonne of sufficiently jerk***ish behaviours to feel such a label is warranted). In fact, I could explain - and sometimes have done so in excruciating detail - the exact behaviours that earned this or that person the sobriquet, "douchebag." Such comments, however, are often disregarded for reasons not dissimilar to my own for rejecting my colleague's warning. "I like to make up my own mind." "I'm a good judge of character." And my personal favourite, "I can spot BS a mile away." Mmmhmm.

I'll go out on a limb here and even argue that we should consider the possibility that not only are many police officers not immune to the "truth default" cognitive bias, but that some may have a particularly difficult time dialing up healthy skepticism when it comes to assessing their own colleagues.

Now, why does this matter beyond individuals getting burned on an one to one level? Well, because many police services rely on internal interviews for determining the results of police promotions or other opportunities. What does the research say? It says, you'd be better off letting an AI program make those decisions, because the program wouldn't be deceived through reliance on reading for honesty cues or adhering to 'gut instinct.'

Let me give you an example from my own experience of how these things could go wrong when human judgment is based on personal assessments alone. A while back, I was asked about supporting yet another career-enhancing opportunity for a police officer. The police leader of that organization gave me a really good rundown of her past performance and why he thought her behaviour indicated someone who would excel at this opportunity. He then asked me to meet her to see if I would consider supporting her application. I agreed to meet, but didn't think much useful information would come of it. I was right. The meeting was incredibly awkward. Like not a few police officers who are walking into an unknown situation, she was very guarded and we struggled to connect. During our encounter, I learned nothing about her abilities, drives or goals or even what she might be like to work with as a collaborator. Based on that interaction alone, many people would likely have said "no way" and/or sent a "what the hell are you thinking?" email.

I actually said yes, and very enthusiastically. What was I thinking? Her past record - which was vouched for by others in her organization - reflected exactly the traits and characteristics I needed to see to believe she was a good fit for the opportunity and would produce benefits for the broader policing community. I listened to behaviour - using it as a predictor for future actions - and ignored my on-the-spot assessment. Result: supporting her was one of the best decisions I ever made! I absolutely love working with her and she’s taken to the new challenges like a duck to water. We also have some pretty fun lunches these days. Don't ever repeat this, but ... I think she's a #superstar

The past week I was explaining to a friend how I trust very few people and therefore always build contingency plans for failure and disappointment. As part of the discussion, I recommended he check out Malcolm Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers, which details Levine’s work. The response I got back two days later was hilarious. I quote: “I should never speak to you.” Why? Because he was half way through the book and keenly aware of just how reliant he had been on the perceived infallibility of his individual assessments of others (aka 'gut instinct'). I intend to ship him a copy of Levine's book next. Soon, he'll probably stop accepting mail from me too.

*Levine has a fantastic book recently released called, Duped: Truth-Default Theory and the Social Science of Lying and Deception.


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