• Simon Boardman

Trust – It’s No Laughing Matter - Trick or Trust Part 3

Updated: Jun 30



We could write a book on trust. As I’ve mentioned before, there are more research papers on the idea of trust than any other idea in social psychology. In Part One of this exploration of trust, we tried to define trust, and we settled on Rachel Botsman’s opinion that it is about "having a confident relationship with the future (or the unknown). In Part Two, we discussed the neuroscience of trust. We looked at the brain's biology and how certain activities (like singing in choirs and playing rugby) promote the release of neurochemicals, which generate feelings of trust. We found it difficult to distinguish the material side of things from the social side.

Today we’re looking at the role of humor in trust. Humorous people may not be more trustworthy, but the real question is, do they generate more feelings of trust? Is it easier to trust them? We’ll return to a recurring theme here, that of the power of "like." Humor plays a part in how and whether we "like" someone, and "like" inevitably affects whether we trust someone. The sentimentality of an idea like this does not reconcile with our desire for dispassionate decision making. No one will, therefore, admit to it. Liking someone is too emotional and subjective. But to deny its power is to deny that we are human.

We argue there’s a sequence and that we are influenced by the emotional disposition of whether we "like" someone. There are examples of people who don’t behave this way and circumstances that don't fit this thesis. We argue that to trust someone, you have to like them (or at least not dislike them), and that it's easier to like someone who is humorous.


A model of trust

We have a model of trust which shows a variety of influences. Some of these overlap and appear repetitive while simultaneously bringing enough uniqueness to deserve their position in our model. For example, the role of Linguistic Relativity (the words we use) and the stories we tell influence how we trust someone, and they also overlap. With respect to "like" and humor, we see humor as a sub-set of the two of the five broad categories used to explain why people like one another. But humor is important enough to deserve its own category. As we stated in the opening, we’re arguing that there is a sequence that generally runs as follows:

Humor => Like => Trust


Will You Still Like Me in the Morning?

We do explore the model of "like" in another chapter, but it bears repeating here by way of reminder. We referenced Gwendolyn Seidman, Ph.D., the associate professor of psychology at Albright College in a previous chapter. She referenced the reasons why similarity increase liking, as examined in another study by Adam Hampton, Amanda Fisher- Boyd, and Susan Sprecher. They list out the following factors:


1. Consensual validation: Other people who share our attitudes are simultaneously validating those attitudes, which vindicates us, and makes us feel less alone.

2. Cognitive evaluation: We make generalized assessments of people based on the information we have available. If we find some commonalities with certain people, this leads to a positive feeling (because we feel positive about ourselves. We then assume we will share other common characteristics, increasing our positive emotions). Sort of a heady cocktail of confirmation bias and a "self-fulfilling prophesy." We show a bias toward any common characteristic we might share. We ignore those where we find less or no commonality.

3. Certainty of being liked: We assume that people we have a lot in common with will like us. Being as we tend to like people who "like us," we kind of get ahead of ourselves and like them because they like us…In other words, I like you because I think you're going to like me. You like me using the same mental short cuts, and guess what…? We end up liking one another!

4. Fun and enjoyable interactions: The simple and most obvious explanation from the Hampton, Fisher-Boyd, and Sprecher research is that it's just more fun to spend time with people doing something you all enjoy. You are less likely to get to spend time with people if you have no common interests. This finding promotes one of the weaknesses of psychology – it’s so obvious that you wonder why anyone needs to conduct a study to come up with it.

5. Self-expansion opportunity: Perhaps the most exciting and counterintuitive of their findings. The theory here goes that we look to expand our knowledge and that we gravitate toward (like) people that possess the promise of helping us achieve that. Immediately one would think that we would assume that those more likely to add value are people we have less in common. They'd open up an entire "undiscovered country" to us. Despite that commonsense approach, the research in this area shows we are more likely to seek out these self-expansions with people who are like us. Maybe this is because we do not know many people who are "unlike" (for the reasons stated). Again’ we betray our humanness as we look for short-cuts and the path of least resistance. It is hard to get to know people with different interests; therefore, we will make the best of the relationships we have.


So, it appears from all this that we like people because, generally, they confirm and/or validate something about ourselves. Three of the five conditions quoted involve making assumptions or "taking" comfort, and one involves us "taking" knowledge to expand our horizons. It all seems relatively self-serving. But let’s overlay humor now on this model and see the effect it would have.

People who have an active sense of humor tend to like others who also have a keen sense of humor. There’s nothing here that contradicts the Hampton, Fisher- Boyd, Sprecher Model in that. It's like the old saying "people like people who are like they are," in this case, we have humor in common.


Under the category of Consensual Validation – if we find another with a sense of humor, this validates humor as a positive characteristic (being as we also have it). If we think we have a good sense of humor, we will be biased when we cognitively evaluate someone else. We will be biased toward looking for a sense of humor. If we find it, that is another tick in the box. If we don’t see it, we might conclude that this person will not become a bosom buddy.


The certainty of being liked category is less useful here, but fun and enjoyable interactions are more powerful for obvious reasons. Generally speaking, the appropriate use of humor promotes fun and enjoyment. Most people like to smile and laugh. Our previous "sub-chapter" also explored the neuro-chemical side of this with our friend Oxytocin. We saw that laughter releases neurochemicals that make us feel good and promote a feeling of trust. We feel good and emotionally uplifted when we’re around people that inspire us to behave this way, further helping that feeling. People usually refer to a "sense of humor" as the most essential and attractive quality. The idea of Self-expansion opportunity is perhaps the most interesting concerning humor as it introduces the concept that "opposites attract." Those who believe they lack a sense of humor might actively seek those they think do have a sense of humor. They might then satisfy the desire for fun and enjoyable interactions or because being in their company of humorous people can somehow enhance their personalities. Maybe they can learn to be more humorous?


The Intelligence Game

One can expand the idea of self-expansion theory itself. Humor plays a role in exposing people to characteristics they think they don’t have but might want. But humor is more influential here. Humor bridges divides between people who appear to have nothing in common (in other words, people who are NOT like one another). This is huge and being as we like to think of humor as a form of intelligence, we assign these people (and therefore in a de-facto way, ourselves) with a higher level of intelligence. This also confers a sense of consensual validation.

Don’t underestimate this; people who have nothing else in common but share a sense of humor can create a great affection and a powerful bond. This bond is based on a deep, less conventional understanding of each other, as well as the self-serving admiration for this intelligence they share.

We’ve agreed with other authorities on this subject that humor is a form of intelligence, and that people can use it to serve purposes other than simply to promote laughter. As we’ve said, sharing a sense of humor with someone is a powerful bond. If you establish this early when meeting someone in a business setting, you can assume that you’ll both achieve a higher level of co-operation. Humor can cover vast distances between people, countries, and cultures. Humor could connect people who, on the surface, have nothing in common where others might assume no connection whatsoever. Underestimate it at your peril.


But I Really Like You

It seems that we have drawn a line in the sand. Put a stake in the ground. Taken a position, if you will. The position is this. Liking you makes it easier to trust you, and people are generally more likable if there's a shared sense of humor. Once we’ve established a "liking" of someone, it’s a fast track to granting them trust.

Exploring the contrarian position here, some will argue that this is not always true. I don't have to "like" you to trust you, as there are other influences in play. As you will recall, Rachel Botsman identified some “traits” of trust and “ability” is a category of such a trait that has two components. Ability is broken down into “reliability” and “competence.” In other words, I can establish a trust of your professionalism, perhaps without really getting to know you. I can trust that you have enough expertise (competence) in a given area and that you are reliable enough to discharge the professional responsibilities relative to that domain. The chances are that I might give you the opportunity to convince me of this (maybe based on a referral from another trusted source). This is all generally true and is a familiar situation. But here’s the deal. During the “pitch” I’ve granted you, I’m actually figuring out whether I like you or not, and whether I “get a good feeling” or not. I've already established through reference and my assessment that you have some professional ability. I'm not looking for further proof of capability and reliability. You have peers and clients who hold you in high enough regard, and you work for a seemingly reliable firm. You're probably a member of some professional bodies which have bestowed professional accreditation upon you.

A good example is "financial advisor." Most of us not in that field would say they "look" pretty similar, and we are probably immediately (rightly) suspicious of them. Achieving professional differentiation is rough for these folks – they’re all “managing your money” and trying to maximize the investment returns, based on the decisions they make. They all use similar "financial vehicles." It's your money, and trust is at a premium. Suspicion is high, and they have to strike a balance between making extravagant claims of past successes (which raise your level of doubt) and being too conservative (keeping suspicion down but becoming uninspiring and indistinguishable). Generally, people in these types of businesses believe in the value of the "relationship," a much discussed but misunderstood dynamic. Relationships are based on things like trust and whether people like one another and, of course, "performance." In the case of the financial advisor – have my investments appreciated, and have they appreciated the level of my expectations?

Let’s turn our attention to a seemingly minor distinction here. That is the difference between liking someone and at least NOT disliking them. In other words, I might not have to like you to give you a chance to convince me and earn some trust such that we can do business together. Its unfashionable these days to publicly admit to having to “like” someone. It makes us look unprofessional and subjective. Too emotional perhaps. The fashion these days is to project the image of being the hard-nosed businessperson, hard-driving, and ruthless. One who says, "you either get it done and make me 15% annually or you’re outta here”. We all know the real world can be a little different, and this image is often an act. But in the real-world, real people have a hard time committing time, trust, and effort to a person they dislike. They might not have to “like” you. They can be neutral, even indifferent, but it’s tough if they dislike you. This changes the landscape a bit. In other words, the objective in the early days of a relationship might not be to get people to like you, or even trust you. That might be perceived as a “bridge too far” and trying too hard. A more realistic and "trustworthy" goal would be to avoid provoking suspicion or even dislike.

This is an important distinction. Too many “professionals” state that in the early stages of potential new business relationships, that they are promoting a “relationship” (I need you to like me) and building trust. Clumsily handled, you’ll have the reverse effect. A better way to think about it is to "overcome suspicion" (not build trust) and at least not give this person any reason to “dislike” you. Maybe it boils down to an adage about life…” it's not what you do, it’s how you do it.”

When Humor Backfires – The Banana Skin Joke - "It stops being Funny when it Starts being You."

Early in the classic movie "Goodfellas," Joe Pesci's character (Tommy DeVito) presses Ray Liotta’s character (Henry Hill) on whether and why Henry thinks Tommy is funny. There’s a group of the "Goodfellas" sitting together telling stories and joking around, toward the end of a restaurant meal. Tommy becomes irritated by an innocent comment Henry makes about Tommy being a "funny guy." Tommy's response is, "Funny how? I mean, funny like I'm a clown? I amuse you? I make you laugh. I'm here to f***in' amuse you? How da f*** am I funny? What da f*** is so funny about me? Tell me. Tell me what's funny?" Tommy's a violent guy, and everyone at the table becomes uncomfortable as this conversation is going sideways.

Humor is a dangerous, high-risk tool and needs to be handled with care. Humor involves a degree of conflict (at least neurologically), as Tommy demonstrates with his faux anger and brinksmanship in the example from the movie Goodfellas. If Henry reacted differently (he was acquiescent, trying to avoid conflict), Tommy's attempt at humor would culminate in confrontation, not laughter. This brings us back to the idea that conflict and faith might contribute to the connection of humor with trust.

We’ve argued that it's easier to start to trust someone if you like them and that sharing a sense of humor enables people to like one another easier and faster. But humor has an element of conflict as does trust, so are they connected better because they share this characteristic?


The Conflict in Humor and Trust

As we point out in our separate chapter, humor is a state of conflict, and laughter is the brain's response to these varieties of conflict, contradiction, and incongruity. Therefore, you see and hear people sometimes laughing at things which are not in the least funny. It is the brain’s automatic, biological response to the conflict. It doesn’t mean that someone found a situation necessarily comical or amusing, it’s just the outward demonstration of the brain’s confusion.

Grappling with "trust" possesses some similar characteristics of inner conflict, which is another reason why maybe, humor can be a vehicle for trust. The granting of trust can feel like an internal battle as we wrestle with questions about someone's genuineness and authenticity. Are they benevolent? Do they have our best wishes at heart (or more realistically) do they at least wish us no harm? As we form new relationships (business or personal), we’re mired in questions – what is this person’s real intent? Why are they interested in a “friendship” or relationship of any form? In the business world, do we defer straight to the “what’s in it for them?”. We have become naturally suspicious. These neurological early warning systems, which evolved hundreds of thousands of years ago, kept our ancestors out of the grips of saber tooth tigers. The modern media reinforces this wariness by subjecting us to a constant barrage of bad news. We've become continually on guard, and whenever we’re faced with a new personal or business relationship, the first question we ask is, "what do they want?"

The WIIFM (“what’s in it for me”) concept is a common idea these days. Sure, it recognizes basic human self-interest, but reduces everything to that idea and working out the "what" of "what's in it." In modern business training, heaps of time are devoted to figuring this out to construct a "map." This map is then used to guide us on "aligning" what you're doing (or selling). Part of the alignment should clearly show "what's in it" for them, which moves you along the path of your success. The idea is that once you’ve identified the “what” they want (say, for example, a B2B buyer), you align your benefits to show that you’re delivering the “what” for them.

Pretty cynical or common sense? Other than the apparent motivations people demonstrate, answering the question “What’s in it for me (them)” is fraught with uncertainty. Sales training spends an inordinate amount of time training sellers on how to identify the” business" wants, which should be reasonably straight forward. But when you get to the "personal" want, there are so many more uncertainties that one can end up with so many broad assumptions, it starts to look like pure guesswork. Sales training is particularly guilty of this as it oversimplifies the problem leading trainees down a black hole.

Once more, we return to the challenge of finding the balance. We know we are all motivated by varying degrees of self-interest. For example, the five reasons we've listed to explain why people "like" each other are mainly self-serving. Still, the question here is, "if I trust you, are you likely to do me harm" and can humor somewhere help me identify that potential? In other words, I grapple with understanding someone's actions and whether they are driven by self-interest (the "what's in it for me (them)"). If I determine they are only or mainly motivated by self-interest, then I should conclude that I should avoid any other involvement. At the same time, I might be able to help them (and myself) professionally. Self-interest and benevolence make for an unlikely combination.

Humor is about conflict. Trust entertains those notions and plays out through an internal self-guessing game. So, can I use or observe humor as a way of assessing whether someone is worthy of bestowing trust on them? Humor causes internal conflict, and you can use it to promote external conflict in a mild form to test trustworthiness.

We’ve advocated using humor as a way of assessing what you have in common with people and the likelihood of a cooperative relationship. If people find your humor amusing and add to it, maybe that’s a better sign than the alternatives. They might, for example, ignore your humor, which gives you a neutral and inconclusive response. Another typical response is one-upping your humor. The "one-upmanship" leads you down the path of distrust or at least "less" trust as they are demonstrating self-promotion and, therefore, self-interest. We're suggesting that we use the "conflict" element of humor and observe where people go with it. Maybe that can help you figure out a connection leading to trust.

The Faith in Humor and Trust

Another similarity is that humor and trust both involve faith and a leap of faith. To trust someone, at some point, I must expose myself to risk (that someone will take advantage and do me some harm. Part of the answer is that when you reach this point, you allow enough trust such that any damage they might inflict would be minimal.

Humor also requires some faith. It’s that moment when someone tells the first line of a joke, and that first line seems like it must end up somewhere controversial. It looks like a high-risk punchline is just hanging out there. Then the other people in the room look at one another, uncomfortably exchanging glances silently asking, "where is this going?". But then the teller takes you somewhere more agreeable, and there’s an almost audible sigh of relief. If you witnessed this situation being repeated with the same "joke teller" but a different group, you would have established some trust with that joke teller from the first incident. In other words, in the first incident, they used humor, which appeared controversial, with the risk of an adverse outcome (a joke that offends some people), but they steered away from that.

This time around, you have established some faith based on their previous behavior and you trust them to remain agreeable. The first incident allows you to take that "leap of faith." As we’ve said, trust involves a leap of faith at some point. We can be diligent and review credentials, talk to peers, take references, ask probing questions to test domain expertise, get to know people socially. Still, at some point, we have to take that leap of faith. All the homework we do is to minimize the size of that "leap," but it still represents a leap.

We keep using the example of "financial advisors," and we go back to the Bernie Madoff example. In his book "Talking to Strangers," Malcolm Gladwell recounts stories of various firms and individuals suspicious of Madoff, yet they did nothing about it. Gladwell quotes thy idea of "Defaulting to Truth." This is a psychological idea attributed to Tim Levine and explored in his book, "Truth Default-Theory and the Social Science of Lying and Deception. Levine argues that based on his research, our usual behavior is to assume that we are dealing with honest people. His research also showed that we are generally wrong at detecting someone who is "not" being honest with us. It’s almost as if the evidence to suggest dishonesty must heavily outweigh our natural disposition toward the belief in honesty (the default to truth). This was true of the Madoff case. The body of evidence was undeniable in retrospect. People either chose to ignore it or frankly not to look that closely (something we are guilty of all the time) in case they saw something they didn’t like. Gladwell asserts, via Levine’s theory, that “You believe someone not because you have no doubts about them. Belief is not the absence of doubt. You believe someone because you don’t have enough doubts about them.” Therefore, we default to truth, believing them to be honest on the absence of enough evidence (doubts) to the contrary. We’re very human, according to both Gladwell and Levine.

Won’t Get Fooled Again

"Here comes the new boss, same as the old boss" is an enduring line from the Who song "Won't Get fooled Again." Roger Daltrey is telling us that nothing changes, despite, our best intentions, and that we’re guilty of letting ourselves get fooled into believing they will. Getting fooled is a part of life, but we refuse to admit that it has happened to us. We like to think of ourselves as objective, smart and “un-foolable.” When we do get fooled (by ourselves or someone else), we’ll reshape history to tell a different story. It is one that portrays us as the hero (as usual), who is infallible and too clever to be deceived. Back on planet earth and revisionist history aside, what can us mere mortals do to avoid “getting fooled again?”

Of course, there’s a few things we can do. In this article we’ve concentrated on humor. We can use humor to understand trust and people better and to protect us from those who would deceive us. We can use humor to gauge trustworthiness, and we can use it (honestly and naturally) to win trust.

We have established an argument that says, most people have a blind spot when it comes to "liking" others. Most people find humor an endearing quality making it easier to like someone, or at least harder to dislike them. We’ve plotted a course that goes - Humor => Like => Trust. We accept that others will argue a different sequence that places “trust” before “like” (in other words I have to trust you before I like you). Opinions vary.

If we share a sense of humor or at least find it an attractive quality, we're more likely to like you, and the more we like you, the more likely we are to invest the time and make a leap of faith to trust you. Being forewarned is being forearmed. We need to remain aware of this weakness and manage it accordingly. We need to ask ourselves the question, "are we trusting this person just because we like them?"

We find it curious that trust shares the typical characteristics of faith and conflict with humor. We make no more of this other than suggesting these common features might add to their interplay with trust.

In the end, it all comes back to balance. Finding the balance in how we assess and grant trustworthiness and how we generate a feeling of trust so that we may have it bestowed upon us. While it’s not a new idea, the best advice is to try to understand yourself. If you conclude that you have a blind spot, with a tendency to trust people you like, then work hard to understand the elements of trust that Rachel Botsman reveals. Those of ability (competence and reliability) and character (integrity and benevolence). Just because you like someone makes them neither capable nor reliable, and there is more to liking someone than the dimension of humor. Finally, you must decide how you will use your gift of humor assuming you have it. You can deploy your humor to allow people to expose themselves. Their response provides some indication of their personalities, intentions, and self-interests (or benevolence). You have to beware of how you use this great "power" of humor to avoid moral corruption. After all, as Uncle Ben from Spiderman (who also made great rice, by the way) famously says, "with great power, comes great responsibility.” Now that’s funny.





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