People prone to feeling guilty are the most trustworthy

Alice G. Walton | Oct 01, 2018

An employer looking to hire a trustworthy employee should pick someone who’s prone to feeling guilty, research suggests. Guilt-prone people are the most trustworthy, according to Chicago Booth’s Emma Levine, University of Pennsylvania’s T. Bradford Bitterly and Maurice Schweitzer, and Carnegie Mellon’s Taya Cohen. They say that people who are high in guilt-proneness anticipate feeling guilty for committing a transgression, and therefore avoid transgressing in the first place.  

“When deciding in whom to place trust,” they write, “trust the guilt-prone.”

In an experiment the researchers conducted, participants played a standard economic game called the trust game in which one player receives money that she can pass on to a second player—and if she does, the money multiplies, and the second player has the choice of returning half of the spoils back to the first. But the researchers tweaked the game so that the first player always passed along the money; their aim was to observe how the second player would respond to this display of trust: would he honor his partner’s trust by returning the money, or would he exploit his partner’s trust by keeping it?

People who scored higher in measures of guilt-proneness, as determined by a questionnaire, chose to give back half of their money more often than people who had more average levels of guilt. The most-guilt-prone people were 1.6 times more likely to return the money than those whose scores fell in the middle. People who were more guilt prone were more trustworthy.

The researchers then find, through similar methods, that guilt-proneness tended to be a better predictor of trustworthy behavior than any of the other “Big Five” personality traits: extraversion, openness, agreeableness, neuroticism, and conscientiousness.

“Trust and trustworthiness are critical for effective relationships and effective organizations,” Levine, Bitterly, Cohen, and Schweitzer write. “Individuals and institutions incur high costs when trust is misplaced, but people can mitigate these costs by engaging in relationships with individuals who are trustworthy.” 

But trustworthiness, they also find, is somewhat malleable. In another experiment, the researchers recruited participants through Amazon Mechanical Turk, an online platform that pays users a small amount for writing reviews, taking surveys, and providing other market-research feedback.The participants read either a code of conduct for MTurk that emphasized the importance of thinking about other people, or a set of instructions that focused on looking out for oneself. Three-quarters of the people who read the code of conduct chose to return money in the trust game, compared to half of the participants primed to prioritize the self. Reading the code of conduct affected people who were both less and more prone to feeling guilty, which implies there may be ways to boost trustworthiness in people who need more of it.