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Who Can You Trust? I, Robot

Using a robot, researchers say they have unlocked the code of how we decide whether to trust another person.

It’s all in the nonverbal cues, according to Northeastern University psychology professor Dr. David DeSteno.

According to the researchers, in the absence of reliable information about a person, we rely on nonverbal cues to predict that person’s likely actions. While this concept has been known for years, the cues that convey trustworthiness have remained a mystery, the researchers note.

In their first experiment, after collecting data from face-to-face conversations with research participants where money was on the line, the research team realized that it’s not one single nonverbal cue that determines a person’s trustworthiness, but rather sets of cues.

When participants expressed these cues, they cheated their partners more, and, at a gut level, their partners expected it.

“Scientists haven’t been able to unlock the cues to trust because they’ve been going about it the wrong way,” DeSteno said. “There’s no one golden cue. Context and coordination of movements is what matters.”

Because people are so fidgety, the researchers decided they could zero in on the cues that mattered if they used Nexi, a humanoid social robot. Because they could control all the robot’s movements, the researchers were able to determine which cues were critical in forming trust.

In a second experiment, the researchers asked people to talk with the robot Nexi for 10 minutes, much like they did with another person in the first experiment.

During these conversations, the researchers had Nexi express nonverbal cues that were considered less than trustworthy or expressed similar, but non-trust-related cues.

Confirming their theory, the team found that participants exposed to Nexi’s untrustworthy cues instinctively felt that Nexi was likely to cheat them and adjusted their financial decisions accordingly.

DeSteno collaborated on the new study with robot expert Dr. Cynthia Breazeal from MIT’s Media Lab and Drs. Robert Frank and David Pizarro from Cornell University.

“Certain nonverbal gestures trigger emotional reactions we’re not consciously aware of, and these reactions are enormously important for understanding how interpersonal relationships develop,” said Frank.

“The fact that a robot can trigger the same reactions confirms the mechanistic nature of many of the forces that influence human interaction.”

The findings were recently published in the journal Psychological Science.

Source: Association for Psychological Science


Who Can You Trust? I, Robot

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2018). Who Can You Trust? I, Robot. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 1, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 12 Sep 2012)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.