By Loh Pui Ying and Cara Wong
WHEN undergraduate Denise Tan walked into an event organised by the Chinese Studies department, she saw many unfamiliar faces.
After scanning them, the freshman struck up a conversation with senior Phyllis Wong.
Pressed for why she made that choice, Tan said Wong resembled a secondary school friend.
Tan admits she feels a connection with strangers who remind her of friends, particularly those from her secondary school, CHIJ Toa Payoh.
“It’s a sense of familiarity. I feel they would be good people and I can trust them,” she said.
She is not alone. A study published this month showed people are more likely to trust strangers if they look like someone they already know and trust.
Similarly, people stay clear of those who resemble someone who has done them a bad turn.
The US study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, got participants to play a money game involving three men shown to them in photographs.
After some 45 rounds, the participants learnt who among the three could be trusted.
The participants then had to select partners for a new game from photographs.
What they did not know was some of the images were doctored to resemble the man who proved to be untrustworthy.
Consistently, the participants chose strangers who looked like the man who could be trusted, and avoided ones who resembled the less trustworthy man.
Monitoring brain activity as the choices were made, the researchers found the part of the brain that perceives threats was actively recording features of the man that could not be trusted among the photographs.
This shows there is likely to be a mechanism in the brain that draws on prior learning to help us make decisions to trust or distrust strangers, the researchers concluded.