Why It's So Easy to Trust a Nice Person
New research shows the benefits to relationships of an agreeable personality.
People high in “niceness,” or agreeableness, may seem trustworthy, but so could people high in extraversion.
New research explores personality and trustworthiness, and a winner clearly emerged.
In choosing who to trust, the findings show what to look for if you want that person to be on your side.
You may have people in your life whom you consider nice, and those you consider not-so-nice. When given a chance, with which would you rather spend time?
Although the answer seems obvious, and that you’d prefer to associate with people who are kind and thoughtful, might there be a downside? And what if you’ve got no choice but to put up with the grumpy and cynical?
Perhaps there’s someone on a volunteer committee with you who always acts in a pushy and domineering way, grabbing the center of attention as much as possible. When they want something done, they expect it done a certain way, shouting over your tactfully-worded objections.
Contrast this behavior with someone else on your committee who seems more interested in getting things done by being positive and supportive, and whose suggestions are always thoughtful and reasonable. Balancing which person’s strategy you’d prefer to follow, that nice person would win hands down. But do they deserve your trust?
Personality and Trustworthiness
According to Tilburg University’s Olga Stavrova and colleagues (2023; published in advance online version in 2022), perceptions of other people’s personalities are a key influence on whether you like them or not. Agreeableness, or niceness, is one trait they propose to be of high importance. Thinking about your situation, you can readily discern the difference in agreeableness between your fellow committee members without needing an official psychological assessment.
Agreeableness is one part of the equation but so, the Dutch authors argue, is extraversion. As the flip side of the dominance-affiliation continuum, extraversion can be regarded favorably if you think the person with this quality makes life fun while also getting things done.
You might argue that both of these qualities could contribute to your willingness to enter into a relationship with a person, at least in terms of whether you would trust them. However, Stavrova and her colleagues were not so sure. Returning to the example of the volunteer committee, that pushy person may seem to have drive and ambition, but their rough edge is what puts you off when it comes to wanting to get any closer to them.
In their review of previous studies, the Tilberg U. team came up with two alternative propositions regarding which personality traits were more positively linked to trustworthiness: Extraversion could be either a plus or a minus, but agreeableness should consistently work in favor of perceiving individuals with this quality as trustworthy.
Testing the Personality-Trustworthiness Link
Across a set of four separate studies (three online and one in-person), Stavrova et al. tested a basic model in which they presented participants with experimentally constructed scenarios, with which they rated the trustworthiness of a potential partner based on whether that person was described as high in extraversion or high in agreeableness. Across the first three of these studies, it was indeed agreeableness and not extraversion that predicted which partner got picked.
The fourth study presented an interesting variation on this basic approach. Rather than simply rate their trustworthiness perceptions of the partner, individuals were tested to see if they would try to seem more agreeable to gain a partner’s trust.
For this manipulation, two sets of participants completed ratings of their agreeableness and extraversion with the understanding that their scores would be available to a potential partner (in the public condition) or not (in the private condition). Next, they played a “trust game” in which they could either give or keep money handed to them experimentally. The essence of this game was that, to earn more money, you would have to first share your initial pool with the partner, who then could decide to give it back to you at triple the value. Trust, in other words, would pay off but only if the other person cooperated.
With the opportunity to try to convince the partner that they were trustworthy, the findings showed that participants presented a more favorable impression of their agreeableness but not extraversion. In other words, if you want to appear trustworthy, you’ll exaggerate your degree of niceness if you think it will help.
What Causes the Niceness-Trustworthiness Connection, and How Can You Use It?
So, if you want to be chosen by another person for your trustworthiness, being nice is a more important attribute than seeming to scintillate. By the same token, it might be easy for you to fall into a comfortable and trusting relationship with someone who seems cooperative and pleasant. The chances are that their agreeableness is genuine, and so you’ll have made the right decision.
Contrasting the two committee members with their opposing personality traits, the findings of the U. Tilberg study underscore your natural response to go with person No. 2. Regardless of the quality of either person’s ideas, it’s their interpersonal qualities that end up swaying you.
The slight danger in all of this is that you go with the person who’s nice but potentially wrong. If only person No. 1 had been a little softer around the edges, they could have won you over. Conversely, chances are that you would prefer to be trusted than not trusted when you enter into a new relationship.
The fourth study that Stavrova and her colleagues carried out suggests that you might have to ramp up your niceness, or at least perceived niceness. They concluded that “people might be pretty good at predicting what will make them appear trustworthy.” It's always best to be honest, but in a pinch, you may have to resort to a slight exaggeration of your charm.
What is the underlying basis for the agreeableness, but not extraversion, link with trust? Drilling down into the components of agreeableness, it would seem to be the exact qualities that define niceness that lead to trustworthiness. Nice people care about your feelings, they want to be and are helpful, they are warm, they try to build group solidarity, and they attend to the needs of others. They’ll put you first rather than them.
There may even be a deeper connection, not explored by the authors but certainly reasonable, based on the role of trust in early life development. As psychologist Erik Erikson proposed, personality development will be off to a better start in infants and young children who feel that the adults in their lives care about their well-being. Maybe it’s not too much of a stretch to put this deeply-seated need into the equation.
To sum up, when it comes to answering the question, “Who do you trust?” the answer will almost invariably be the nice person. Whether you should trust them or not is a separate issue, but the odds are that it is the nice people who will help you on your path toward fulfillment.
Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., is a Professor Emerita of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her latest book is The Search for Fulfillment.