A Matter of Trust

By Leda Kopach

It’s been said that the best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them. But according to David Gefen, an MIS professor at LeBow, playing music can help; it just depends on the tune.

“We know that music affects people’s behavior, their moods, their emotions,” Gefen says. “The reason happy music is played 
in the supermarket is so people buy more. The reason that you go into an elevator and hear soft music is because you are entering a claustrophobic metal box that can plunge you to your death. It’s not for entertainment; it’s to calm you down.

“The ancient Greeks believed music came in three categories: religious, war (marching) and popular music that only the lower class was permitted to listen to. They believed that music affected people’s behavior,” Gefen adds. “I started wondering if music affects who and what we trust.”

To explore his idea, Gefen teamed up with Drexel’s School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems. Their ongoing study asks subjects to play a computer-simulated investment game with actual money; participants are told they can keep a portion of whatever money they have at the conclusion of the game. Gefen and his team introduce a variety of investment scenarios — cheating, trust, deception — while playing different types of background music or playing no music at all. At the same time, the subjects wear a bandana-like device that records neurological activity in the prefrontal cortex of their brains using functional near-infrared spectroscopy.

Gefen is finding a “Schubert effect.” When listening to the pensive, melancholy piano Musical Moment Number 3 in F minor by Schubert, subjects invest significantly less than when listening to the lively piano rendering of Marches Militaires also by Schubert, or even when listening to no music at all. Amazingly, the pattern of brain activity in the right dorsal region of the prefrontal cortex 
shows the same pattern of lower activity when hearing the Musical Moment Number 3.

The results suggest that music and trust may be related to the brain’s Brodmann Area 9; this prefrontal cortex region of the brain has been associated previously with “increased behavioral inhibition of voluntary behavior,” Gefen says. An uplifting tempo is associated with more activity in the right dorsal region, which in turn is associated with increased trusting behavior during the game. Fast tempo music “may reduce apprehension that would otherwise reduce trusting behavior.”

If Gefen is correct, trusting behavior can be manipulated by music, which could result in more or less cooperative behavior and investing.

“Trust is the most important factor when we are interacting with other people,” Gefen says. “When you trust another person, you invest in the relationship. The other person reciprocates, and you have a cycle of increasing trust. This is how human beings behave. Trust is critical not only in personal relationships but also in the business environment.”

His advice to investment advisors who are delivering bad news to their clients: Play happy music, not slow music, because slow music will cause clients to invest less moving forward.

Gefen became interested in trust theory while working as an IT project manager in Israel. “I realized how important it was when dealing with vendors and customers. Building trust is the most important thing that a manager does, or more precisely, not breaking trust, both within the team you lead and with external contacts.”

His previous trust research led him to examine electronic marketplaces such as eBay. “Reviews are so important on these sites. One bad review, one bad experience for a consumer is very harmful to the site’s reputation. If you buy a book and it says ‘very good condition’ and you think it’s only ‘good,’ there is a break in trust, not in the letter of the contract but in the spirit of the contract. It makes you feel cheated.

“When you feel that way, you perceive that all sellers are bad, and once you feel that way, your mindset changes,” Gefen adds. “Instead of thinking about trust, you think about risk.”

Other research includes the importance of trust when outsourcing contracts to vendors.

“What is the number one reason we rehire firms to do work for us?” Gefen says. “It’s because they have done work for us before satisfactorily. We trust them.

“Trust is our willingness to give a credit to another person without guarantees,” he concludes. “It is our belief that the person will behave as we expect him to, in a socially acceptable manner. It’s a calculative process. Is it worth my while, given the risk that you may engage in unacceptable behavior? What is more trusting behavior than to give someone money?”

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