10 signs someone probably isn’t a trustworthy person, according to psychologists

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How well can you tell a reliable, truthful person from an untrustworthy individual?

If you’d asked me in my early 20s I would have said “no problem!” 

But years of subsequent experience have shown me that many people who seem legit end up being snakes…

And folks who you aren’t sure about at first often end up being some of your most reliable confidantes, colleagues and friends after getting to know them. 

So how can you tell? Let’s take a look at what psychologists and psychological research has to say about how to identify an untrustworthy person.

1) They keep changing their story

There is such a thing as having a poor memory or difficulty narrating anecdotes and explaining what happened. 

But people who always seem to tell a different version of how something happened are often untrustworthy. In some cases they may not even intend to be untrustworthy: they just are. 

In many cases they are suffering from what psychologists call cognitive dissonance, which is where somebody is acting in contradiction to their beliefs or identity and thus tells false or incomplete versions of events involving themselves. 

“Cognitive dissonance can make people feel uneasy and uncomfortable. This is particularly true if the disparity between their beliefs and behaviors involves something that is central to their sense of self,” notes psychosocial rehabilitation specialist and psychology educator Kendra Cherry, MsEd.

2) They don’t have empathy for others

Another psychological sign of untrustworthiness is a lack of empathy

A person who has no real regard for the suffering and hardships of others is displaying warning signs about their own honesty and reliability:

The fact of the matter is that if they don’t care about other people in general, who’s to say they will care about you? 

A lack of empathy has a tendency to become broad-based and lead to cruel or impersonal behavior. 

Whether you’re dealing with this person in a business or personal context, it’s best to be cautious if they don’t seem to empathize with anybody else. 

3) They are quite self-aggrandizing

Having a healthy dose of self-confidence is perfectly fine, and there’s nothing wrong with an individual who knows their own value. 

But a person who brags about themselves, name drops and is generally self-aggrandizing is somebody you should watch out for. 

Psychologists point out that this kind of behavior often verges into narcissism and a person who treats the world as a stage for validating their own self-esteem and self-image. 

When this is the case there is reason to worry: their priority isn’t honesty, it’s their own image and inner sense of validation.

As Professor Emerita Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., ABPP explains

“‘Regular’ narcissism involves feelings of grandiosity, entitlement, and a preoccupation with validating one’s own self-esteem.”

4) They dodge eye contact and fidget a lot

There can be various reasons for dodging eye contact or fidgeting. 

But a person who seems very shifty and never looks you in the eye is somebody you should at the very least have questions about. 

Psychologists and body language experts agree that eye contact is an important indicator of somebody’s psychological state as well as their feelings and thoughts about you. 

When they avoid eye contact it’s a sign of being uncomfortable with you or the situation. 

In many cases it’s also a sign of them being a less-than-trustworthy individual.

5) They manipulate to get what they want

All of us pursue our own interests in a selfish way at times. 

But an untrustworthy person does so on a persistent and sleazy level, often manipulating us to try to get what they want. 

Common tactics include playing the victim, gaslighting, emotional blackmail or triangulating where they bring up another person’s perspective or view and use it against you. 

Often the untrustworthy person will try to get you to trust them by pretending to be self-aware about their own faults and gaining your sympathy.

“These examples show us how dangerous an account of unfortunate circumstances that might gain our sympathy can be particularly, if told with with and humor and apparent self-deprecating sincerity, a confession of sins,” writes Sheila Kohler of Princeton.

6) They get defensive when they’re called out on their BS

The untrustworthy individual takes criticism very badly. 

Even if it is highly constructive criticism and feedback, they take it personally and tend to lash out. 

This is a sign of an individual with very low self-awareness, which is a warning sign for them behaving in ways which are harmful and not learning from their mistakes. 

In other words, this is the behavior of a person who tends to be untrustworthy and not be accountable for their actions. 

After all, if they won’t learn and grow from what they do wrong, how are you supposed to trust them? 

7) They’re secretive and vague about their actions and plans

Highly secretive people should bring up some questions. 

Being private is not a warning sign in any way, but secrecy goes to the next level and is more about actively concealing information, especially about ordinary things.

When somebody is hiding many details of their everyday life for no apparent reason, you have cause to wonder why. 

Is there something going on that you should know about? 

As Professor Michael Slepian PhD. notes, privacy and secrecy are not the same thing:

“You can draw a line between secrecy and privacy by considering secrecy as an intention to hold specific information back, and privacy as a reflection of how much you broadcast personal information, in general.”

8) They don’t own up to their missteps or they shift blame

Untrustworthy people often refuse to take responsibility for their mistakes or blame others for their shortcomings.

They always have somebody else to blame for what went wrong or a justification of why it wasn’t really their fault. 

This often involves them playing the victim and explaining away their behavior. 

This is a form of psychological projection in a person who has trouble managing their own feelings, and regardless of their deeper traumas or reasons for doing so, it means you should be very cautious about trusting them. 

As psychology writer Arash Emamzadeh explains

“Blaming others (i.e. projection) is more common in those who are experiencing negative feelings and are unable to regulate their emotions.”

This ties into the next point:

9) They only apologize with a caveat 

It’s not easy to admit being wrong or say sorry for something we’ve done wrong. 

But the untrustworthy person takes it to the next level:

They only say sorry when they add in something a “but” or an excuse. 

They’re sorry, sure, but they wouldn’t have done it if X hadn’t happened. They’re sorry, but they’re going through a hard time. They’re sorry, but they didn’t understand what you said. 

And so on and so forth. 

This often stems from an insecurity on their part where they feel that apologizing will weaken their position or prove them to be of lesser value. So they overcompensate by never simply apologizing without reservation.

“We may feel apologizing won’t change anything in a particular situation, we might not care about the person we’re supposed to apologize to or, more often than not, we’re worried that apologizing will impact the way others see us and how we see ourselves,” explains psychologist Dr. Roberta Babb.

10) They’re impulsive and lack self-discipline

People who are highly impulsive and lack self-discipline are often untrustworthy. 

Psychological research points to the numerous ill effects of a lack of self-discipline, including difficulty reaching long-term goals and a propensity for not keeping one’s word. 

Those who can’t control themselves don’t make reliable partners in business, relationships or any other area of life. 

They may be wonderful people, but their lack of willpower means you should think twice before trusting them.

“Like so many things that are good for us, the benefits of exerting willpower accrue with repeated practice,” notes psychologist Michael Wiederman PhD.

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