The Science Behind a ‘Trust Fall’

Accountability Teamwork


Dr. Trudi Chalmers is the resident performance neuropsychologist at ATB Financial. She received her Ph.D in Neuroscience from the University of Calgary. She was also recently picked as an ATB “spark”; a company catalyst and example of inspired leadership. I’m pleased to have Trudi contribute her second celebrity blog to

You’ve just been assigned a really interesting new project that requires some collaboration with colleagues. You know that you need to depend on them if the project is going to be completed by the deadline… As such, the first feelings that surface for you are likely around trust. Will they deliver what they promised? Will they give their best work? Will they be responsive and engaged..? Can you trust them?

Trust is the backbone of most of our dealings at work, home, and as clients to other businesses and services. And yet, for something so important we seem to have a very rudimentary understanding of it. We easily say “I just don’t trust them…” without really understanding what trust means and why we feel that way. There is a whole science behind trust, and understanding that science may help us understand trust a little bit better.

Colloquially, when asked most people define trust along the lines of “it’s based on past experiences” or “it’s built over time” or “it’s a gut instinct”… None of which are wrong… But, all of which miss some key components. In the scientific literature, trust is defined as an individual’s belief in, and willingness to act on, the basis of the words, actions, and decisions of another. A key component of trust is that there MUST be vulnerability – trust involves a dependence on another person with the potential for serious negative consequences if that person doesn’t act according to our expectations. Anytime that we experience vulnerability you can bet that there will be some pretty strong emotions tied in!

We can’t get through life without having to be vulnerable. So, we’ve come up with ways to unconsciously assess trustworthiness in order to create the best possible outcome for ourselves. A study published in Nature Neuroscience shows that trust in a person can be primed by reading a short biography that subtly outlines good moral character (like, helping a friend in need). Not only did this information increase perceived trustworthiness, but it also over rides actual experience! Even after this person acted ‘unfairly’ the participants in the study continued to demonstrate trust behaviourally – they behaved based on what their initial perception was and seemed to not learn from experience. Thus, a sense of shared morals and values are important for allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and to trust. Furthermore, we want to trust those with ‘good’ morals and values – even when their actual behaviour suggests we shouldn’t.

Generally speaking, life flows along pretty smoothly when there are no violations of trust – to the point that we sometimes don’t even notice how much trust we’ve put in someone until we get let down by violation of our expectations. When this happens, we often perceive that violation of trust as an injustice – or, unfair treatment. Studies that measure brain activity during perceived unfair treatment show that a specific area of the brain (anterior insula) becomes activated. Interestingly, this is the same area of the brain that becomes active when we’re in physical pain. In a very real way, the social and emotional pain that results from violations of trust are experienced the same as physical pain.

Character Moves:

  1. Respect the vulnerability associated with trust. Recognize when someone is putting their trust in you and be mindful of the vulnerability associated with that. Be accountable.
  2. Increase your awareness of unconscious influences on trust. Notice what triggers trust for you. Notice the instances when you trust someone even when their behaviour says you shouldn’t. AND, the instances when someone trusts you and you know you’re not delivering according to expectations!
  3. Remember that the pain associated with unfair treatment and violations of trust is felt physically. Take the trust that others place in you seriously.

Trusting in the Triangle, 

Dr. Trudi Chalmers 

Thanks again, Dr. Chalmers,