The Importance of First Impressions and Trust: Key Findings

With only 100 milliseconds on the clock to prove you're trustworthy, the importance of first impressions cannot be ignored.


Contributor / Adam Waytz

Associate Professor of Management and Organizations
Kellogg School of Management / Psychology

In psychology, several of the key findings about trust have been published since 2000, and we are discovering how and why people decide to trust—or distrust—other people. For example, one study showed that people decide within 100 milliseconds whether to trust another person. Another study identified a central network of brain regions involved in the decision to extend trust. It also found that different psychological processes, and different brain networks, are responsible for conditional and unconditional trust. Conditional trust is contingent on the behavior of another person, while unconditional trust is not. Other studies have shown that gossip can help build trust, and that we judge people’s trustworthiness based on two factors: their perceived warmth and their competence, with one taking priority over the other.


A lot of the key articles in psychology on the topic of trust I think have really come out in the 21st century. And one really key article that emerged in 2006 was a study in Psychological Science by Willis and Todorov.

And Willis and Todorov conducted a really elegant study that simply discovered the remarkable finding that trust is something that people tend to judge in another person’s face within 100 milliseconds.

Now, how they conducted this study was they gave participants a variety of different faces — they exposed participants to a variety of different male and female faces.

And the first part of the study just involved an unconstrained session where participants made various judgments about these faces.

So, how attractive is the person in this photograph? How likeable is the person in this photograph? And how trustworthy is the person in this photograph?

In the second portion of the study, participants were presented with the same faces extremely rapidly. So, some were presented at 100 milliseconds; some were presented at 500 milliseconds; and some were presented at 1 second.

And various participants, after this brief exposure to the face, were simply asked the question, “Do you find this person trustworthy, yes or no?”

And what they found was very striking. First of all, there was an extremely high correlation between these snap judgments of, “Do I judge this person as trustworthy, yes or no?” after just a brief exposure to a face — a monumental correlation with those judgments and the judgments made in the absence of time constraints.

So, this suggests that people are making judgments about trustworthiness within 100 milliseconds.

What was also interesting was that, as time increased (so, as participants saw these faces at 500 milliseconds or after a whole second), the correlation didn’t really change that much.

So, what these findings tell us is that trustworthiness is something that people judge very automatically, even before we’ve gotten our wits together to really decide how confident we are in our judgment.

And they really correspond to the same judgments we make about trustworthiness when we have unlimited time to judge people.

BUMPER: Key Research on Trust in Neuroscience

Neuroscientists have also really taken up the topic of trust in their studies as well. One definitive paper on the neural underpinnings of trusting behavior comes from Krueger and colleagues, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

This experiment involved a multi-round trust game. So, this is the game where there is an investor that decides how much money to invest with a trustee, and the trustee then decides how much to pay back.

In these studies, the trust game is administered in a similar fashion to how it’s administered in classic psychological studies, in studies within economics; the only difference, of course, was that in this study, participants brains were scanned while they were making decisions about whether or not to trust and how much to trust people.

The central findings of these studies were that there was a central network of brain regions that was involved in decisions about whether or not to trust, and these brain regions are those that are typically involved in what is called “mentalizing,” or thinking about the mind of another person, thinking about the intentions of another person.

So, this mentalizing network was consistently recruited when people were making decisions about whether or not to trust.

What was also interesting was that this study looked at the differences between conditional trust and unconditional trust.

What’s meant by conditional trust is trust with the assumption that my partner in this game might behave in a self-interested fashion. Conditional trust is, I’m only going to trust you if you’re going to repay me, repay my trust.

Unconditional trust has to do with trusting people indiscriminately, irrespective of what you think their intentions might be.

Another major finding of this study was that separate brain networks were recruited when people engaged in conditional versus unconditional trust, suggesting that these are different psychological processes.

BUMPER: Warmth vs. Competence

A short review paper in Trends in Cognitive Sciences by Susan Fisk, Amy Cuddy and Peter Glick really summarizes a body of research that is essential to understanding how psychologists think about trust and how psychologists study trust in this day and age.

What Fisk and colleagues have found over years and years of studies is that we essentially judge people on two dimensions: How warm is this person? So, how benevolent is this person? And how competent is this person? Does this person have the capability of acting on his or her intentions?

And the most interesting finding that comes out of this research is that people don’t treat warmth and competence the same.

People judge these things relatively rapidly; they base a lot of their judgments about whether to approach or avoid another person on judgments of warmth and competence. But warmth tends to predominate our social judgments.

In other words, warmth is the first thing that we judge when we judge another person (competence comes slightly after), and warmth carries the weight of our judgments when deciding whether or not to trust someone.

Keep up with the latest insights on trust

Related Videos

In some instances, there are similarities between chess and the psychology of trust.

Friend or Foe? A Psychological Perspective on Trust

Contributor / Adam Waytz
Adam Waytz Psychology Definitions,Government,Healthcare,Measurement,Regulation,Reputation Management,Social Psychology,Swift Trust I’m going to be talking about trust from the perspective of psychology, neuroscience, and psychophysiology.

And in these fields and subfields, trust is studied in a fairly straightforward manner: People want to know, and researchers want to know, under what conditions do people trust each other, and what are the factors that people use to determine whether or not to trust someone?

Now, despite the straightforward manner in which trust is studied in these fields, trust is really a multifaceted concept in these fields as well.

BUMPER: Key Components of Trust

So, drawing on a definition that actually comes from outside of psychology, from McKnight and Chervany in the information sciences, we can think about trust as consisting of four different things: benevolence, integrity, competence and predictability.

Benevolence essentially means, is this person a kind person? Integrity means, is this person an ethical person?

Competence means, does this person have the ability to do what needs to be done? And finally, predictability means, does this person behave in a way that I can consistently forecast?

The key question that people want to know about in these fields is, how do people judge whether someone or another entity is friend or foe? What are the dimensions that people use in judging whether someone is trustworthy or not?

BUMPER: Neural and Hormonal Bases for Trust

Trust is also studied in the subfields of neuroscience and psychophysiology, where these fields take psychological questions and simply ask, what are the neural or hormonal or physiological underpinnings of psychological phenomena?

The basic questions that psychology, neuroscience and psychophysiology are trying to answer are essentially twofold: One is, how do people decide whether or not to trust another person? What are the characteristics of the target? What are the situational determinants that lead someone to trust another person or not?

And second, a more recent question that people have gotten really interested in these fields is, how automatic is trust? How quickly do we make the decision to trust another person?

So, one of the debates that predominates psychology is the degree to which trust truly is automatic — that is, how quickly do we judge another person as trustworthy or untrustworthy.

A second debate in this field focuses on a much more specific topic, which is the topic of, what is oxytocin’s role in guiding trust?

Oxytocin is this hormone that’s been implicated in all sorts of behaviors related to social bonding and affiliation.

And work in the early 21st century by Paul Zak and colleagues determined that administering oxytocin to people (that is, increasing people’s oxytocin) increased their willingness to trust people.

But more recent research has questioned, how much is oxytocin actually solely positive in nature? Is it really this “love drug” that people like to refer to it as?

Another questions is, how much are the studies that show the role of oxytocin and trust, how much are those studies able to replicate when administered time and time again?

BUMPER: Measuring Trust

How people measure trust and trusting behavior in psychology and neuroscience and psychophysiology is very straightforward. Often, it simply consists of asking people, “How much do you trust this person, on a one-to-seven scale where one is not at all and seven is very much?”

So, a typical study would present people with various targets — maybe targets that they are just viewing the face of, maybe targets that they’ve interacted with — and then the study would ask people, “How much do you trust this person?”

Other research uses classic economic games. There’s one game that’s known as the “investment game,” or the “trust game,” that can actually measure trusting behavior.

So, within the field of psychology and its associated fields of neuroscience and psychophysiology, the questions that we’re asking about trust are really relatively simple: How do people decide and how quickly do people decide whether or not to trust another person?

However, the way that trust can be conceptualized is incredibly multifaceted.

So, trust might mean trust in the predictability of someone, trust in the warmth or benevolence of someone, trust in the integrity of someone, or trust in the competence of someone to get things done.
Healthcare is an industry where measuring trust based on warmth just as much as competence can be beneficial.

Measuring Trust: Through Competence—or Warmth?

Contributor / Adam Waytz
Adam Waytz Psychology Breaches,Distrust,Government,Leadership,Measurement,Reputation Management,Social Psychology BUMPER: Trust and First Impressions

I think what the research suggests is that first impressions go a long way and that people are making a decision about, “Do I trust this person? Do I trust this organization? Do I trust this brand?” relatively immediately.

And furthermore, trust is very difficult to restore once it is breached.

BUMPER: Warmth vs. Competence in Gauging Trust

So, the work of Susan Fisk and others has shown that warmth really predominates judgments of trustworthiness, more so than competence.

So, the first and the most important thing that people are basing their judgments of trust on are, “Do I feel that this is someone that’s benevolent? Is this a person or a company or a brand that’s kind, that’s good, that I would like to be friends with?”

The problem is, in the world of business, people tend to focus on conveying competence.

When they want to restore trust or when they want to gain people’s trust initially, businesses tend to focus on competence: letting people know that they’re intelligent, that they’re capable, that they have the ability to act on whatever their intentions are.

Consumers and people in the world and just people who are engaged in social life care about competence second. They care about warmth first. This is also important for leaders as well.

Amy Cuddy and colleagues wrote an article in Harvard Business Review that I like to refer to which is called “Connect, Then Lead.”

Often leaders think that they need to convey their competence to the organization above all else. But the most important thing is first to connect with subordinates and peers and other executives on this dimension of warmth.

I think why we focus so much on competence in the world of business is that competence is much easier to measure. We can see performance ratings; we can see sales numbers; we can see return on investment.

Competence is something that is very visible, so we tend to focus on what is visible and what’s quantifiable.

Warmth is something that feels a bit squishier, a bit more abstract, and even a bit less quantifiable, yet warmth is what people are really thinking about when they’re judging, “Do I trust this person? Do I trust this organization? Do I trust this brand?”

Now, some companies and some organizations have gotten much better at quantifying warmth or quantifying things like social responsibility: “How much is my organization engaged in fair practices towards its workers? Positive interactions with the community? Benevolent actions towards the environment?”

And we can start seeing the emergence of the corporate social responsibility scores. I think this is a step forward in organizations trying to capture warmth in a more quantifiable manner and then conveying that to potential consumers who really care about these dimensions.
Trust in healthcare is especially critical when a child's health and well-being is at stake.

Trust and Vulnerability: A Pediatrician's Perspective

Contributor / Kelly Michelson
Kelly Michelson Pediatrics Definitions,Distrust,Government,Healthcare,Institutions and Context,Regulation,Reputation Management,Vulnerability Trust is really about relationships. And it can be relationships between people; it can be relationships between a person and an organization; or it can even be between people and events.

People actually have different definitions for trust, and I think it’s important to think about, what do we mean by trust? Some would call it an “action based on expectations of how others will behave in relation to yourself in the future.”

Another definition of trust that applies well in the healthcare setting is the following: “the optimistic acceptance of a vulnerable situation in which the trustor believes the trustee will care [in the] trustor’s interest.”

There are some parts of that definition worth emphasizing — in particular, this notion of “vulnerability,” that there has to be some sense of vulnerability in a trusting relationship, whether it starts from that place or develops into a vulnerable place.

So, you can imagine having a relationship with someone, and once you’re very trusting of that person, that actually can make you more vulnerable.

More commonly in the healthcare setting, though, we see a patient who because of their illness, has some inherent vulnerability, and that helps to set up a situation where trust can build.

Another important piece of this definition is this concept of motivation — the idea that, in a trusting relationship, one person is doing something caring for another person or something in another person’s best interest.

And finally, embedded within this definition is the notion that trust is a forward-looking concept. While it may be influenced by past events, it really describes how a person or organization behaves moving forward.

BUMPER: Trust and Distrust

In talking about what trust means, we also have to consider what’s meant by “distrust.” And while the jury’s kind of out about a clear definition, I think there’s some important things to talk about.

Some people would talk about distrust as the absence of trust, the lack of familiarity, sort of not having a feeling one way or another.

Another way to look at distrust is that it’s the opposite of trust, that it’s a situation where a person is pessimistic or concerned about another person’s motivations.

And finally, one can think about distrust as a substitute for trust, not necessarily the opposite of trust. So, at some level, you can have distrust and trust at the same time.

For example, maybe I get sent to an emergency room, and I feel confident about the situation because I know it’s a good emergency room. But something happens, and I sort of feel like, “Well, I’m going to hold out and reserve judgment.”

So, you can kind of share a sense of trust and distrust simultaneously — this notion about trusting, but “let me make sure that’s really the case.”

BUMPER: Trust in Individuals and Systems

When we talk about trust in health care, I think it’s important to consider it in relationship to different groups: you can have individuals, and you can have systems.

Even in this individual group, you can identify differences. So, you can have a particular one individual — a doctor or a nurse. Or you can have kind of an institution that’s an individual institution within a larger group — so, maybe one hospital within a whole healthcare system.

And then you can also look at it from a more systems perspective. And even in that context, there are more individuals and then more institutional things.

For example, maybe the group or system of how emergency doctors function or how surgeons tend to function is maybe a more systems approach — or you have how a particular institution (how hospitals work) can also be a more systems-based perspective.

The other thing to keep in mind is that relationships can be personal and they can be impersonal in the healthcare system. So, again, I use the individual doctor with their patient as a very personal relationship.

And even a patient may have a personal relationship with a hospital. You can imagine having a feeling of trust for a particular hospital and, in that way, kind of personalizing that relationship.

You may have someone who doesn’t believe in western medicine. So, even this concept of western versus non-western — this system of western medicine versus non-western medicine — is important for some patients.

Other pages in Videos:

Pages in The Trust Project at Northwestern University