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Thursday, October 26, 2023

The Neuroscience of Trust

Paul J. Zak
Harvard Business Review
Originally posted January-February 2017

Here is an excerpt:

The Return on Trust

After identifying and measuring the managerial behaviors that sustain trust in organizations, my team and I tested the impact of trust on business performance. We did this in several ways. First, we gathered evidence from a dozen companies that have launched policy changes to raise trust (most were motivated by a slump in their profits or market share). Second, we conducted the field experiments mentioned earlier: In two businesses where trust varies by department, my team gave groups of employees specific tasks, gauged their productivity and innovation in those tasks, and gathered very detailed data—including direct measures of brain activity—showing that trust improves performance. And third, with the help of an independent survey firm, we collected data in February 2016 from a nationally representative sample of 1,095 working adults in the U.S. The findings from all three sources were similar, but I will focus on what we learned from the national data since itʼs generalizable.

By surveying the employees about the extent to which firms practiced the eight behaviors, we were able to calculate the level of trust for each organization. (To avoid priming respondents, we never used the word “trust” in surveys.) The U.S. average for organizational trust was 70% (out of a possible 100%). Fully 47% of respondents worked in organizations where trust was below the average, with one firm scoring an abysmally low 15%. Overall, companies scored lowest on recognizing excellence and sharing information (67% and 68%, respectively). So the data suggests that the average U.S. company could enhance trust by
improving in these two areas—even if it didnʼt improve in the other six.

The effect of trust on self-reported work performance was powerful.  Respondents whose companies were in the top quartile indicated they had 106% more energy and were 76% more engaged at work than respondents whose firms were in the bottom quartile. They also reported being 50% more productive
—which is consistent with our objective measures of productivity from studies we have done with employees at work. Trust had a major impact on employee loyalty as well: Compared with employees at low-trust companies, 50% more of those working at high-trust organizations planned to stay with their employer over the next year, and 88% more said they would recommend their company to family and friends as a place to work.

Here is a summary of the key points from the article:
  • Trust is crucial for social interactions and has implications for economic, political, and healthcare outcomes. There are two main types of trust - emotional trust and cognitive trust.
  • Emotional trust develops early in life through attachments and is more implicit, while cognitive trust relies on reasoning and develops later. Both rely on brain regions involved in reward, emotion regulation, understanding others' mental states, and decision making.
  • Oxytocin and vasopressin play key roles in emotional trust by facilitating social bonding and attachment. Disruptions to these systems are linked to social disorders like autism.
  • The prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and striatum are involved in cognitive trust judgments and updating trustworthiness based on new evidence. Damage to prefrontal regions impairs updating of trustworthiness.
  • Trust engages the brain's reward circuitry. Betrayals of trust activate pain and emotion regulation circuits. Trustworthiness cues engage the mentalizing network for inferring others' intentions.
  • Neuroimaging studies show trust engage brain regions involved in reward, emotion regulation, understanding mental states, and decision making. Oxytocin administration increases trusting behavior.
  • Understanding the neuroscience of trust can inform efforts to build trust in healthcare, economic, political, and other social domains. More research is needed on how trust develops over the lifespan.