Trust and The Mentalist

Some of you may be familiar with the CBS TV series The Mentalist, starring Golden Globe nominee Australian Simon Baker.  The lead character, Patrick Jane, is a consultant to law enforcement agencies who uses his carnival-honed powers of observation and human nature to appear almost clairvoyant.

In a recent episode, Jane makes three trust-related comments. While prepping his co-worker (and lover) Teresa Lisbon how to behave in an under-cover job in prison, he gives her three pieces of advice.

Jane’s insights show he’s a pretty good judge of trust as well. (Or at least the writers are).

Trust Advice from Patrick Jane

Most TV shows treat trust in fairly broad-stroke, big picture kinds of ways. For example, a cop might tell a fellow officer, “I can’t work with someone I can’t trust,” after having been lied to by the second officer.

But that’s relatively mundane. What’s interesting about the Patrick Jane character is that he grasps some subtleties about trust.  He “gets” the advanced version of trust, if you will – as is totally appropriate for the character’s persona.

Advice Tidbit Number One.“Tell them one Big Lie, not lots of little ones.”

On the face of it, truth and lies are the province of credibility – the first of the four elements in the CRI/S Trust Equation. But many truths and lies, over the course of time, affect reliability, the second element.

The drip drip of lies, even small ones, is a double-whammy. One “mistake” can be excused or forgiven. But a pattern of lies is more than the sum of the individual untruths.  It is the difference between a series of lies told, and a teller of lies – a liar.

Advice Tidbit Number Two. “If you want to get someone to lower their guard – lower your own.”

Trust relationships are based on an iterative series of risk gestures.

Consider a handshake. The one who proffers the hand to shake is the trustor, the one who first takes the risk. The other person is the trustee; if they return the handshake, the level of trust goes up a tiny fraction.

What this is about is vulnerability. Being vulnerable makes one available to relationships – and trust is above all a relationship. Note the one taking the risk is the one initiating trust; this runs counter to the usual image of trust as being about risk mitigation.


Advice Tidbit Number Three. “If you want someone to trust you, ask them for a favor – even a small one.”

The reciprocal exchange of risk gestures is the template of trust creation. While we usually think of doing someone else a favor as risky, Jane is quite right that the asking of a favor is also a form of risk.

If done sensitively, sincerely, and infrequently, asking someone a favor is a form of flattery. It shows the asker has such respect for the other that he is willing to suffer the embarrassment of refusal. It is a form of risk-taking. It demonstrates vulnerability.

Vulnerability drives risk, which initiates the formation of trust. There is no trust without risk.

7 replies
  1. John
    John says:

    I particularly like number 3. I heard the Ben Franklin Story just today where he had a political rival who he swung to his side by asking to borrow a book from his library. it kind of lines up with Cialdini and his observation that we want to be congruent. If I do you a favor I must Trust you.

    Happy Holidays

  2. TenYearTexan
    TenYearTexan says:

    Last week I read (don’t know if it’s true) that in Japanese culture, it is common for businessmen in an important deal to go out in the evening and drink to excess. The theory is ‘I don’t have anything to hide. If I do, you’ll find it out from me when I’m drunk’.

  3. Sean Alexander
    Sean Alexander says:

    I’m confused by the last line of #1: “It is the difference between a series of lies told, and a teller of lies – a liar.” I see lies as being intentionally told untruths. Thus, a series of lies are still lies and the teller is still a liar. Conversely, if someone tells an untruth without knowledge that it is untrue, that person is not a liar; simply ignorant. It may be willful ignorance, but still ignorance. That person is not a liar, but they certainly may be untrustworthy. So, back to the quoted sentence. What am I missing here?

    • Charles H. Green
      Charles H. Green says:

      Sean, I quite agree with your point.
      The point Jayne is making is more about subjective impressions, that we as people are inclined to overlook one lie, even if a Big Obe, but that a series of lies triggers our suspicions.

      I was trying to express his point empathetically by using the language of one who subjectively perceives the teller of multiple lies as a liar, but one who tells a single lie as ignorant, or acting “just once” out of character, or whatever other excuse we might offer up for such a person.

      I think your point is more the straight-up ethical point, that one who tells a lie is, quite simply, a liar by any ethical standard. And in that I think you are quite right.

      I see Jayne’s point as a (correct) psychological observation about people, and yours as an equally correct ethical statement about intentional telling of untruths.


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