Trust is essential for cooperation and success, but what does the science tell us about how trust actually works? Social Neuroscientist Paul Zak unpacks the neurobiology behind trust in a fascinating podcast conversation with Sylvestre & Co.’s Isabelle Landreville on “Insightful Inspiration.”
Paul said trust is "when I voluntarily or intentionally allow you to control something that affects my life, my resources, my time." We trust others because we expect they will reciprocate and be trustworthy.”
Paul explains that when we interact with someone, our brains rapidly take in information to assess if they seem trustworthy - including body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, and our own comfort level. When we feel psychologically safe, our brains release oxytocin, making us more likely to trust.
On a neurobiological level, when someone appears trustworthy, our brains release oxytocin - the "trust hormone." The more oxytocin released, the more likely we are to trust that person. Paul's research shows that this response is largely automatic and unconscious.
He explains that feeling comfortable and psychologically safe facilitates trust. Stress inhibits it. When we feel relaxed with someone, it signals safety to the primitive parts of our brain.
Paul notes women tend to be better at eliciting trust because they are seen as less threatening. But men can learn to project warmth and empathy.
He advises using eye contact, introductions with a handshake, and an "interview" style story to make participants comfortable and engaged without revealing research goals. This immersion elicits trust while controlling for bias.
Trust Over Time
While rapport can be quickly established, Paul notes that trust deepens gradually in relationships and teams. New employees often start very trusting, then trust declines as they see flaws, then rises again after years of shared experiences.
He says leaders should encourage professional development, work-life integration, and whole person growth to sustain trust and engagement long-term. Autonomy and purpose are also key - people work harder for missions than just paychecks.
Culture of Trust
To build a high-trust team culture, Paul advises leading by example - being in the trenches, listening, and following through. Annual whole-person reviews help understand employees' passions.
He believes in training extensively, then delegating generously. Mistakes provide learning, not punishment. Blame erodes trust; forgiveness maintains it.
Isabelle notes that last episode's guest Raj Manocha advocated intentionally extending trust from the start. Does science support "trusting first"?
Paul responds that it's generally easier to appear trustworthy than having to build up trust after trust was violated. But for those with trust issues, avoid competition, stressors, and anxiety-provoking personalities, focus on common purpose.
He explains our brains constantly model and adapt to our social world. We can accommodate most people's quirks when their intentions are good.
Words of Wisdom
Paul believes trust underpins satisfaction, growth, innovation and service.
For leaders aiming to build trust, focusing on genuine psychological safety, mutual purpose, and human dignity seems key. With insight, intention and compassion, we can create bonds of trust that uplift us all.