According to a new psychological study, people who are more prone to feeling guilty are also usually the ones that are more likely to act in a trustworthy manner. “Guilt-proneness” is a stronger predictor of how trustworthy a person is compared to other traits such as extraversion, openness, agreeableness, neuroticism, and conscientiousness.
The study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, had participants playing different economic games and completing surveys that allowed researchers to assess both trustworthy behavior and intentions. In the games, people that were assessed as guilt-prone returned more money to others than people with low guilt-proneness.
The researchers claim that this study is unusual because most of the previous research on trust focuses on what makes people more or less trusting. This work focused on what makes people more or less trustworthy.
"Trust and trustworthiness are critical for effective relationships and effective organizations," the researchers said in a statement. "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."
"Our findings extend the substantial literature on trust by deepening our understanding of trustworthiness: When deciding in whom to place trust, trust the guilt-prone."
The researchers clarify that being prone to guilt is not the same as feeling guilty. Feeling guilty is a reaction to a transgression and it usually generates reactions towards a reparation. Guilt-proneness is about the anticipation of guilt over some future wrongdoing, so guilt-prone people prefer to avoid committing the transgression in the first place.
This guilt-proneness can be taught. In one of the experiments, some participants were asked to read a code of conduct while others were asked to read a passage about the importance of looking after themselves. Those who were primed to behave responsibly returned more money to others than the rest.
"Our research suggests that if you want your employees to be worthy of trust, make sure they feel personally responsible for their behavior and that they expect to feel guilty about wrongdoing," lead author Dr Emma Levine explained.
It appears that the old adage of making someone trustworthy is to trust them is clearly not true. Guilt-proneness is much more effective.