'Trust Me' Is Not Enough

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

July 31, 2013

You're interviewing for a faculty position when a member of the hiring department offers you some advice. A senior professor has just told you what you must do to win tenure. A colleague gives you tips on writing a grant proposal that he may or may not be applying for, too.

Should you trust any of them?

Whether you are looking for a job, seeking tenure, trying to get an article accepted, or applying for a grant, how do you know whether you can trust someone who gives you the inside scoop? Certainly it is not enough when someone merely says, "Trust me!"

It would be nice if there were one or two fail-safe cues, but there aren't. Rather, what you need to do is rely on a series of questions you can ask yourself. No one of them will give a definitive answer on your source's reliability, but in combination they can prove to be extraordinarily helpful.

What is your gut instinct? People seeking to confide in you emit many signals regarding their trustworthiness, but you may process those signals unconsciously. Some people can lie through their teeth while looking you straight in the face but others cannot. If the informant has trouble looking you in the eye, maybe there's a reason.

Is your source sweating profusely or showing other signs of stress? You'll never be a walking polygraph machine. But if the informant is trying to tell you something and is stressing out while telling you, you probably want to be more doubtful than you otherwise might be.

If your gut feeling is not to trust someone, you probably shouldn't. But if your gut feeling is leaning toward trust, read on.

What are your informant's credentials and experience? Does the person have the right background to give you relevant advice? If you are seeking a full professorship, you probably won't get great information from an assistant professor. If you are seeking a deanship, you might value advice from someone who has already been a dean.

Experience is a different matter from credentials. Does the source have the experience to know what he or she claims to know? She may be a department chair or dean, but hired from the inside whereas you are coming from the outside, or vice versa. Or your source might be a faculty member who has served on search committees for deans but isn't a dean himself. In that case, he might have helpful inside knowledge about how deans are selected.

Does what you're hearing make sense? If not, don't assume it's your fault or that you're lacking in cognitive ability. It is more likely that you are getting a snow job. Ask questions, and if the informant can't answer them, or answers them with gobbledygook, treat any information you receive in that conversation with great skepticism.

The field of probability has a way of dealing with information that surprises you or seems off. It is called Bayes' theorem and it applies here: The more someone's comments counter your prior beliefs about what is true, the more evidence you probably want, and the more convincing you want the evidence to be, before you accept what you are told.

So think carefully about the informant's story: What is fact and what is interpretation? Sometimes a source will tell you the truth as she sees it, but then interpret the information in a way different from the way you would interpret it. Separate fact from spin. And if you basically believe what you are told, ask yourself whether you accept the interpretation of the information as well as the information itself.

What do other people think of the informant? It really doesn't matter if the source tells you "Trust me!" What is more important: Do other people tell you that he can be trusted? The opinion of any one person may be biased, but if you ask a reasonably large and representative sample of people, you are likely to find out something about his trustworthiness.

The other side of that coin is, What does the informant think of other people in the department? Does he bad-mouth others to you without provocation? If so, you can imagine what he will say when he talks about you. Beware.

Is your source a good listener? If she wants to do all the talking and does little or no listening, that increases the probability that she has her own agenda and does not really care about you or your agenda.

Think about her possible motives. Does she have a hidden agenda that may motivate her chatty disclosures? Does she have any incentives to tell you the truth, or to lie? If so, what are those incentives, and how would she benefit? The greater the benefits to her of conveying information to you, the more careful you should be in accepting what she says. But if she's talking too much, that's a good sign that there is some angle she wants to make sure you hear.

How, if at all, can you verify what you've heard? You should be more accepting of information that you can verify, if indeed you take the trouble to verify it. But if you cannot verify the information, or if you will not attempt to do so, you should be more skeptical about what you are hearing.

Consider if there are details missing from your informant's advice. His account of events may be true, but only so far as it goes. You may be getting incomplete information. And what is left out may be important to knowing what to do with the information. Make sure you get as comprehensive a set of facts as possible.

If you've had past dealings with the source, has he ever lied to you before? As the old saying goes, "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me." It is surprising how many people allow themselves to be fooled twice, or three or four times.

Does your source have reason to trust you? Generally, when someone gives you inside information that is not readily available (or is even kept secret) that person is risking something in talking to you. If your source does not know you well, or otherwise has little reason to trust you, you should ask yourself why she is taking the risk of disclosing anything to you.

Is the informant the sole source of this information? If you have other sources, are they independent of the original source? When rumors fly, you may hear the same wrong thing from any number of people.

As you evaluate the information you are given, ask yourself what the best, worst, and most likely outcomes would be if you were to act on the advice. If the worst possible outcome is bad, or if the best possible outcome is not that good, or if the most likely outcome is not what you would hope for, then you have some thinking to do and should proceed cautiously before acting on the tip.

Robert J. Sternberg is president of the University of Wyoming and of the Federation of Associations in the Behavioral and Brain Sciences. He is treasurer of the Association of American Colleges and Universities and a former president of the American Psychological Association. The views in this article are strictly his own.