The science behind ‘taking it out on someone’

Maria Isabel Garcia
What if you were asked to trust someone for the first time? What would make you trust them?

What are the ingredients of trust? If you are referring to trust in people you already know, the answers are obvious: consistency, sincerity, and dependability. But what if you were asked to trust someone for the first time? What would make you trust them, and in the same manner, what would make you not trust them? The answer may surprise you.  

Imagine that you are on your way to meet people for the first time. You will be investing your money in these people. But on your way to the meeting, you pass by the gasoline station and someone there harasses you to buy something. When you don’t, he scratches your car and runs away. You sigh, get your gas, and drive to your meeting. The drive is also stressful, with other drivers cutting you off and bird poop clouding your driver’s side-view mirror. How much of the feeling from those unfortunate incidents will transfer to the trust you will have for the strangers you will be investing money in when you get to meet them?

According to a very recent study, you will most likely be less trusting even if the things that stressed you out are completely unrelated to your meeting. Scientists call these unrelated feelings “incidental affect.” Previous studies have shown that there is really something else that affects the trust we bestow strangers aside from the relevant logical considerations. This study did not just confirm this – it even showed in parallel what happens to the brain parts that are known to be associated with behavior that concerns trust.

The “stress” ingredient in the study was an actual electric shock – one that was strong enough to give pain and thus elicit anticipatory stress, and one which could be felt but not painful at all. The shocks were given at unpredictable times. These were administered while the subjects were asked to invest in a stranger, with the investee having a choice of whether to give back the returns or not. All these happened while they were hooked up to brain scanning machines to see what brain regions are activated and connected during the “trust” and “distrust” behavior.

The study found that when they felt the unrelated threat (electrical shocks), the participants trusted the strangers much less than they would if they did not experience the painful shocks. The participants knew that the shocks had nothing to do with the risks involved in trusting a stranger with their money. And yet, they significantly behaved under the spell of that unrelated stress. 

Not only was this pattern seen in the behavior of the participants but also in their brain scans. They saw that activity in the left tempoparietal junction (TPJ) – the brain region which many studies have shown to be always activated in “trust-specific” behavior – was “muted” when the participants did not trust. The connections between the TPJ and other brain regions like the amygadala (the primal emotions area which we share with other animals) and the posterior temporal sulcus were also “muted” in “distrust” compared to “trust” behavior.

I think this is the science behind the “taking it out on others” phenomenon. I think we have observed this in our everyday life. For example, as kids, when we want to ask our parents for something, we first figure out if they are stressed about something or someone – even if we were not the ones who stressed them out. In our professional lives, we gauge where the boss is coming from – literally and in her head – so that you can gauge her state of mind when she comes to deal with you. You know that even if what you will discuss with her has nothing to do with what happened to her previous meeting.  

What could all this mean? Considering that in communities and societies, we are far more strangers to each other than friends, we should be aware that the incidental stress that affects us all – like the depressing or horrifying news about crime, corruption, the water crisis, and the traffic crisis – spills over to how we trust one another. Having enough water before you leave home or having to worry about not having water when you get home affects how you trust people even if they have nothing to do with crimes, corruption, or the water crisis.  This seems to really be a way to sow distrust within communities: create common stressors.  

For those companies whose products and services essentially require that they elicit trust from their clients, it seems crucial to know that the clients’ immediate experience prior to the transaction may be key to whether they will get the clients’ trust or not. I have yet to look up studies, if there are any, that have found evidence on whether there are any mediating circumstances that could “reboot” us from that unrelated stress. But from experience, I can tell that a pleasant experience before the transaction helps me forget that stress. To the extent that it will influence the trust I will give people, I am not sure.

I think it takes a lot of mental effort to be aware of one’s own biases, and tease out with a clear mind to see how your emotions are influencing whether you will trust someone or not. This means that our reasoning could easily be hijacked by our own emotions – feelings that are unrelated to the situation at hand. The best way, I think, is to clear your mind in ways that work for you, whether it is taking deep breaths, having a quiet time first, or consciously being aware of the things that nag you but you know should not influence your decision. Taking “it” out on someone means “it” does not really, in fact, belong to that someone. –

Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, “Science Solitaire” and “Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire.” You can reach her at

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