To Trust or Not to Trust?

Recently, some things have come to light that I have found personally disappointing. A few people have behaved in a self-centred way, and it puts me in an awkward situation.

If given a choice, I always try to be kind, open, honest, respectful, and cooperative. However, sometimes some people don’t play by these same rules, and the more open and honest you are, the more they can use this information against you.

These experiences have led to me doubting myself. I wonder if I am too trusting, as some of my friends say. Other friends tell me that the only way to respond is by playing the game and putting my own needs first.

What should we do if someone is being unkind and only considering their needs irrespective of the consequences these actions have on us?

Game Theory

Game theory looks at the best rational approach to take in a strategic interaction between two people or groups of people. There are many different games, including cooperative games, where an official can enforce the rules and consequences, and zero-sum games, where one person’s gain is another person’s loss.

One of the most famous examples of a game is the ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’:

Imagine that you are a member of a criminal gang and that you have been arrested alongside one of your gang associates. You are in separate rooms at the police station, and you have no way of communicating with your associate. The Police tell you that they have insufficient evidence to get either of you on a big charge, but enough to get both of you on a smaller offence. So the Police give you and the other prisoner one of two options:

  1. You can betray your associate by testifying that they were the one who committed the crime, or
  2. You can co-operate with your associate by remaining silent and refusing to testify.

The possible outcomes are:

A. If you both remain silent and co-operate with each other against the Police, you both only get one year in prison.

B. If you both try to betray each other by agreeing to testify, you both get two years in prison.

C. If they betray you, but you’ve tried to co-operate, they get to walk free, and you get three years in prison.

D. If they try to co-operate by remaining silent, but you betray them and agree to testify, you get to walk free while they have to go to prison for three years.

The rational approach is not to co-operate with your associate, because at worst, you will get two years in prison (B), and at best, you will serve no prison time (D). This is compared to the worst outcome of three years in prison (C) if you remain silent, and the best result is one year in jail (A). Therefore, not betraying your associate and co-operating will only lead to a worse outcome, even if you know that your associate will co-operate with 100% certainty.

Therefore, it is not always rational to try to co-operate with someone who could potentially take advantage of you, and positively not sound if you know that they are deliberately trying to take advantage of you.

What About Long-term Strategies?

If two people play multiple games of Prisoner’s Dilemma and remember what the other player did previously, does it make it more desirable to co-operate rather than betray the other person? This is more reflective of how most relationships are in real life, whether with family, friends, co-workers, bosses, or intimate relationships. We may win more in one situation, but at what cost? This iterated version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma is sometimes known as the ‘Peace-War game’.

In 1984, Robert Axelrod organised a tournament where participants chose their strategies in an extended version of the Peace-War game, with 2000 trials. He found that greedy approaches to the game actually didn’t fare too well and resulted in more years spent in prison by the end of the game.

One of the most straightforward strategies was also the most effective, and this was tit-for-tat. The tit-for-tat strategy aims to always co-operate in the first trial and then do exactly what your opponent did on the previous trial for your next move. This way, you punish a betrayal with a quick betrayal back and reward co-operation with ongoing co-operation. Sometimes (in 1–5% of the trials), it is good to co-operate once even after your opponent betrays you, but generally, the most effective method is still tit-for-tat, which is interesting to know.

After the tournament ended, Axelrod studied the data and identified four main conditions for a successful strategy when negotiating with other people:

  1. We must be nice. This means that we should never defect or cheat before the other person does, even if we only want the best for ourselves.
  2. We must retaliate quickly and at least 95% of the time if people try to defect against or cheat us. It’s not good to be a blind optimist or always co-operate no matter what the other person does. This only leads to us being taken advantage of by greedy people.
  3. We must be forgiving and get back to trying to co-operate once we see that the other person is trying to co-operate reasonably again.
  4. We must not be envious and try to beat our opponent or score more than them. Creating a win-win scenario is ideal if possible, even if it means giving up some points by co-operating when you could defect.

What Relevance Does This Have For Real Life?

It may be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that screwing others over is the best way to get ahead in life. Or to not put ourselves out there so that we don’t get taken advantage of. In reality, this would only be the best approach in a world where every other person tries to take advantage of everyone else every chance they can. This is not the case in any society on our planet as far as I know, so never trusting people and always assuming the worst from others is not the way to go.

Trust Don’t Trust
Untrustworthy Get hurt Don’t get hurt
Trustworthy More connection Less connection

By looking at the table above, the best outcome is to try and trust reliable individuals (and co-operate with them) and not trust or co-operate with individuals who are not. The worst results are being hurt by putting our trust in those we shouldn’t or not letting in or co-operating with others that we really could have.

Maybe I am a little too trusting. I assume that other people are kind and good people who have good intentions unless I am proven otherwise. This is the position that I will continue to take, even if it means that sometimes I get hurt once I realise that someone is a bit more self-centred or dishonest than I had hoped.

Looking at the four elements of a successful negotiating strategy, I know that I am nice, forgiving and non-envious. However, the lesson that I need to learn is that of swift and appropriate retaliation or enforcing a certain consequence shortly after someone is nasty towards me. This would help deter the other person from trying any more selfish tactics in the future and could put them back on the path towards co-operating and trying to achieve a win-win situation for both of us.

I have thought previously that if I always co-operate, I can be happy with the person I am. However, sometimes being firm and assertive and standing up for ourselves in the face of unkind and selfish behaviour is the far better and more self-respecting approach to take.

I hope this article has encouraged you to not give up on trying to trust or co-operate with others. I also hope it will encourage you to stand up for yourself if someone tries to take advantage of you.

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

Published by Dr Damon Ashworth

I am a Clinical Psychologist. I completed a Doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology at Monash University and a Bachelor of Behavioural Sciences and a Bachelor of Psychological Sciences with Honours at La Trobe University. I am passionate about the field of Psychology, and apply the latest empirical findings to best help individuals meet their psychological and emotional needs.

55 thoughts on “To Trust or Not to Trust?

  1. I think this is a great topic. I always say keep people at arms length for about three months and then their true colors
    come out. There’s this facade that has to fade away. And it makes sense why it’s there. It’s very much a survival tactic. But genuine people, in the end, don’t have expectations and it’s that agenda that you’re waiting to see. Thanks for the read!

  2. First of all, I love the chess pics. I’ve begun a chess club in my elementary school. So much of life can be related to a chess game analogy! Secondly, I am preparing a similar blog, using Axelrod’s studies. I came across this through Richard Dawkin’s book, “The Selfish Gene”. He has a chapter (12), “Nice Guys Finish First”, where he explains and examines Tit for Tat. My blog is about teaching kids how to be “classy”. I consider myself a “nice person” and think that this is a good character trait that, if more people practiced it, the world would be better off. The blog that I am preparing is about this concept of it being “classy to be nice”. I plan to mention this game theory, but through Dawkin’s lense. I am glad to have read your work. Do you have any suggestions for sharing these thoughts with third graders?

    1. Thanks Matt! I look forward to reading your blog on the topic when it is done. Not too sure how to share the ideas with third graders, but I would think that even 9 or 10 year olds would be able to grasp the different choices and potential outcomes in Prisoner’s Dilemma. I would just try to make the situation more relevant to them or their school or home life.

  3. If people are kind, ethical and respectful I am a big softie and reciprocate with kindness, generosity and my time. Where people have betrayed my trust in a big way I will avoid them permanently even though I have forgiven them. People need to earn my trust and that can take a long time because I have been hurt too much.

  4. I feel the same as betterworldmatrix. When people are self-centered and unkind, I do not perceive them as operating in a normal way, and I cannot expect them to find ways to correct the damage they have done. They will not get well or be a civilized, trustworthy person after that, and I never will believe they will change, it’s too much to count on. So live and learn, be wise, be assertive, maybe even more than normal to show you are never intimidated by the person! Grow into bigger and more outspoken shoes, help others, be kind, generous, but don’t be intimidated by a moron! As I write this for a friend who needs to read this… lol!

    1. I slightly disagree I always start at a neutral but slightly trusting point, I’ve got the courage to make the first move in the trust game, of which there are levels. I’ve been hurt a lot too. However I see trust as a tower built on the end of a seesaw, thus balance is the name of the game. Each brick of trust on your end must be balanced by a brick of trust from the other person trusting you. If only one person trusts the tower slides off the end as it’s built on an angle. More mutual trust higher the towers but breaches of trust cause obvious destruction for both sides. Falling bricks hurt.

      As for the prisoner game if I was a member of a criminal gang I would know exactly what my punishment would be for not cooperating with another gang member 3 years in prison for because a gang member squealed would mean they would get freedom and a beating from the rest of the gang plus I’d be part of a gang with gang protection in the prison. The prisoner game fails to take into account the reality of gang culture. Sorry.

  5. Well, everyone I ever chose to trust and be vulnerable with either wound up abusing me or abandoning me (with the exception of one, who had good reason to leave). So I have learned that there is never a reward for trust and vulnerability. Only pain and loss. Perhaps somewhere in the world, people exist who would not mistreat or abandon me. But I clearly cannot discern between those who will and those who won’t. And so I choose to never place myself in a position where such a thing may ever happen to me. I don’t care if it means no connection or reward. I’ve never experienced any lasting reward from all the love, or kindness, or forgiveness, or understanding I have demonstrated toward others. At least this way, the indifference will always be mutual. I choose to love myself and be my only true friend. This comes not from bitterness, but from a place of acceptance and peace with who I am and my lot in life.

  6. It’s interesting you have this topic. My new therapist told me I seem to not be open to having friends. This is not necessarily the case. As a sociology major I like to observe people for a period of time. I have two male friends that are like family to me. They live out of state. One is a former co-worker and the other trained me to be a social worker. I’m not into the things the society pushes on individuals. I do not need a quantity of friends. I like quality friends. I do not trust ANYONE except the two of them. Period. Anything that anyone tells me. I will ask to receive it in writing. I do fact checks too. I have cut off toxic family and friends I do not miss them.

  7. Great post, the Axelrod results made me think of Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics (not that I deeply understand it). Part of his ethics is that virtue is often nestled between two vices. For instance, anger is a vice when dealing with an injustice; excessive anger would be a vice. However, a lack of anger at the appropriate time would also be a vice, as one could be taken advantage of. He never details how to identify the correct time to be angry, or how much anger is needed… but I think the point is valid.

    So there are times when not trusting, and thinking poorly of someone, is justified and does not reflect on you. (Until you see evidence that that the individual in question has tried to change.)

    Could there also be a misinterpretation of intent in some instances? I don’t think people always maliciously break trust. I think some people do it due to a lack of forethought. I find this hard to identify – when is someone doing something out of a lack of forethought, and when is malicious?

    Anyhow, thanks again.

    1. Yeah I find it hard to distinguish between the two also. I do know that most people see themselves as a good person, so they may have a very different explanation for why they did or are doing what they are than how it seems. There aren’t too many people out there who take pride in being an evil person or someone who is deliberately untrustworthy. I’d say it’s about how often something is done too. If it’s done repeatedly, it can’t just be a lack of forethought in my mind.

      1. Thanks for responding! Agreed, I think people represent themselves through their actions. So, as you say, if someone does a particular action repeatedly it is unlikely to be a lack of forethought. I’ve been reading a little about Bates theorem and updating priors – I guess if we agree that most people see themselves as good, the prior may be ‘this is inconsiderate’ but as more evidence of intentionality builds up, them adjusting the prior to ‘this person is malicious’ is warranted.

  8. First I’d like to thank you for following my blog, bhealthylife. I have always been very trusting and have been hurt, lied to, and physically as well as mentally abused in the process. But through it all, I remain the same trusting person and try to help people see that it doesn’t have to be that way. I have always been a strong person, I’ve been told. I always see the good in people first. And will continue to do so.

    I’m looking forward to following your blog and learning from you and your great writings.

  9. I love your posts. And how vulnerable you made yourself here. It’s exceptionally authentic. Being true to oneself is always the next best thing. I have a simple belief system. There are 2 types of people in this world. Narcissists and everybody else. It’s amazing that you are non envious and forgiving. That I you for another great read.

  10. This is a good read! I try to push myself to “live right” and not be that person who throws someone under the bus to gain an advantage, but I know there are people out there willing to do just that. However, the idea of retaliating after being wronged is difficult for me to swallow, but I understand the reasoning behind it. For me, I’m going to change the concept from retaliation to something that fits me better, evolution. I’m going to get up after being thrown under the bus, understand who did it and why, and then try to create a mindset or rule to live by to prevent that type of event again. My goal is not so much to get retribution for being wronged, but to prevent it from ever happening again. I want to grow from the experience and move on with the things I want to do and leave that event and person in my past. Fool me once…

    1. Yes good point. What you are saying you try to do is similar to how I have been in the past, but I do think that if I’m going to have ongoing interactions with someone as opposed to cutting them out of my life, some form of swift retaliation or negative consequence may be needed. If you can keep away from someone who is untrustworthy, that is probably better

      1. It seems to me that the best approach when confronted with an individual who has wronged you is, wherever possible, to voice your concerns as soon as the negative event has occurred. This, as a means of reinforcing your stand and preventing any re-occurance of such events. I trust that that’s what you meant by ‘retaliating’.

      2. Yes, I was using the wording from the prisoner’s dilemma situation. Interestingly, the research on parenting shows similar findings. Parents that have clear and consistent and reasonable and prompt consequences for misbehaviour have more well-adjusted children in general than parents that are too permissive and don’t enforce any consequences when boundaries are crossed.

  11. I often was taken advantage of for my kindness and willingness to help. Now I put the onus back on them, make them do all the research before I start to put some real effort in. If they do not know how to research and get information then it is they who have failed and I have not wasted my time. Trusting people is not always easy especially when money is involved you have to test them to see how they react.

  12. Very interesting – it is hard to imagine how an animal [Homo Sapiens] could evolve into such different types that they are so dysfunctional with each other. But Axelrod does seem to offer the possibility that there is a way through the labyrinth.

  13. Like so many others responding to this post, I have suffered a lifetime of abuse, lies, and horrible treatment of me as a person, so trust is very difficult for me, and I am suffering from PTSD from some of the trauma. But the way I have handled it recently is 1) I have posted openly about it in a general way without specifics and used the information to help others, especially children, teens and young people; and 2) I have made it a point to volunteer with various organizations, and in doing so and feeling as though I am helping others, it helps me to feel better too. As I am interacting with the organizations, I am practicing my skills without a lot of pressure from working in a job where if I am not doing exactly what I am told, I could get fired. I have worked for more than 15 years with special needs children and young people, and I have taught illiterate people not only how to read and write, but also how to have goals and how to move toward achieving them. So that is a pretty obvious one. I’ve survived well for years, but if another incident happens, which it has, that is when it is difficult to keep coming back. I am 77 now and so have other issues, but I keep getting back up and trying again, and as I like to tell people, I am 7 and still standing. Thank you most positively. Anne

      1. There are so many needs in this world for volunteers, and I think my own change in my philosophy of life and my spirituality has been a huge help in my getting well too. I may not be 100%, for I still have nightmares and anxiety at times, but overall my life is as productive as I can be and I am happy doing things like my gardening, and my art, and caring for my significant other and pets. Life can be as good as we choose to make it. I am a professional writer, and I am happy to have achieved many good things to help others in this world. I have my blog,, and I post on it regularly my own writing and other things that have caught my attention. We do have a choice to at least to keep trying in our lives until we can overcome at least some of the things we have dealt with. Though none of us would choose these things, the challenges of life are essential for us to learn compassion for others, and to learn to work to help not just our own selves, but our communities and cultures as well. Thank you most kindly.

  14. This is very interesting! I like the way you broke this down, especially with the prison reference. I learned some very hard lessons in middle and high school about trust. I quickly learned that everyone is not to be trusted but you can’t shut yourself out to everyone as you’ve stated. The only person I trust fully is Jehovah God (Isaiah 26:4; Psalms 146:3). When I meet new people I’m more reserved and observant at first, watching how they treat others. Being quick to listen and slow to speak (James 1:19) I can better gauge who’s trust worthy and who’s not.

  15. Hi Dr Damon! I grew up thinking (and acting) on the old adage “do as you would be done by”, but decided to change the phrase to “do as others do unto you” a few years back. This way you give out to those that deserve it – both good and bad 😉

  16. Really interesting post Damon! I actually studied this stuff at uni in a game theory module and I’ve never thought to apply it to my own friendships and business relationships! Certainly food for thought. Thanks for sharing!

  17. Thanks for your post! It’s very informative and well put together! I’ve also found that being assertive can be preferable than trying to be nice, plus it tends to lead to unhealthy people leaving my life if I continually do it. I look forward to reading more of your posts!

  18. I found this a very relevant and helpful topic to talk. I think world deserves trusting nature in ppl, so better not to leave your good nature but set a strict limit on how far you would be nice and trusting, before you get into tit for tat mode. Speciallu ppl in “love” .

  19. I’ve actually been to jail and I could have blamed another person and most likely got a slap on the wrist. I believe that honesty in this case truly was the best policy. My husband was nearly taken to jail with me because I was going to keep quite until speaking with a lawyer. When I found that he was also going be taken in I immediately told the truth because there was no consequence harsh enough to do that to my husband or anyone else. I took responsibility and the result was actually very favorable because I showed true remorse for what I had done and my therapist wrote a letter to the DA in my defense.

    I really enjoyed that blog it. I look forward to reading more of your ideas! You should take a look at my blog and tell me what you think. I would be interested in your opinion on my thoughts and writing style. Thanks!

  20. Nicely written. There is another effect of your being trusting or cooperating. At least in most situations, others (bystanders) will observe or find out how you and the other person behaved. If you behaved nicely and tried to cooperate it will encourage others to do the same. I do think the media exaggerates in most people’s minds the prevalence of cheating etc. because it makes for better drama. But society is vastly built on cooperation on a massive scale. We generally trust people and systems to provide non-poisonous water, non-poisonous food, to drive on the proper side of the highway, etc. You might enjoy this post on how our own behavior can have various ripple effects.

  21. I have a hard time with trust due to repeated times when a person’s actions have proven them to be untrustworthy. It’s been hard, but I realize that this is just one person. I am not quick to let my walls down, but also have realized that most people can be trusted unless I am given reasons not to think so. Thank you for sharing your perspective.

  22. This is a very interesting topic. I personally love the ‘grey’ area in life where we make use of the senses that are less obvious. Our gut feeling can tell us a lot about our environment which is why I think it is far more important to learn how to trust yourself first before trusting others. We have the tendency to be wanting to control life, but in reality, we will never be able to. Surround yourself with people that make you feel good and comfortable and learn how to use and develop your emotional intelligence. You cannot blame another for being the way they are, you can only blame yourself for the importance you give to them.

    1. It doesn’t make much sense to me either, but I think there are some people who are quite selfish and view other people not as real people, but as self-objects. This means they try to see what they can get from others for their own benefit, and won’t really consider the others persons needs or feelings. It happens when people are not empathetic. My dealing with toxic people article goes into how to manage people like this.

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