It’s a Matter of Trust: and the illogical thing about it


The obvious and rational equation is: Transparent (being open and not hiding anything) + Trustworthy (acting in a way that’s worthy of trust)  = Being Trusted

Being trustworthy plus being transparent will lead you to be trusted. Verification of trustworthiness should lead to trust.

This makes sense and should be sufficient to earn trust.

How then, do we explain that brands like Coke and Google are trusted? The recipe is secret, the algorithm is secret.

In fact, it looks like trust often comes from something very different. It is mostly about symbols, expectations and mystery.

Consider the relationship you might enter into if you need surgery operation. You trust this woman to cut you open, you are putting your life in her hands… without the transparency of seeing all of her surgical statistics, interviewing all previous patients, evaluating her board scores.

Instead, we leap into surgery on the basis of the recommendation from one doctor, on how the office feels, on a few minutes of bedside manner. We walk away from surgery because of an unfriendly receptionist, or a cold demeanor.

The same is true for just about all the food we eat. Not only don’t we visit the slaughterhouse or the restaurant kitchen to see how they make the food, instead we make an effort to avoid imagining that they even exist, we just want to eat and trust that the food is prepared in good quality.

In most business engagements, trust is something we want and something we seek out, but we use the most basic semiotics and personal interactions to choose where to place our trust.

Once the trust is broken, there is almost no amount of transparency that will help us change our mind.

The reason we don’t read the fine print is because we believe that the contract we are about to sign is in our best interest. Which is not always the case.

When I withdraw money from an ATM, I rarely count it immediately because I trust that  the ATM has counted it accurately.

Quick test: Consider how much you trust Trump, or Clinton, ANC, EFF, or DA.

  • Is that trust based on transparency?
  • On a rational analysis of public statements and private acts?
  • Or is it more hunch-filled than that?
  • What are the signals and messages you rely on? Tone of voice? Posture? Appearance
  • Would more transparency change your mind about someone you trust? What about someone you don’t?

It turns out that we grab trust when we need it, and that rebuilding trust after it is  been torn is really quite difficult. Because our expectations (which were not based on actual data) were shown to be false.

Real trust (even in our modern culture) does not always come from divulging, from providing more transparency, but from the actions that people take (or that we think they take) before our eyes.

Trust comes from people who show up before they have to, who help us when they think no one is watching, who act in good faith when no one is observing.

Trust comes from people and businesses that play a role that we need them to play.

We trust people based on the hints they give us in their vocal tones, in the stands they take on irrelevant points of view and yes, on what others think.

Mostly, people like us trust people like us.

There is no honor among thieves.

The mystery that exists in situations without full transparency actually amplifies those feelings.

I’m worried about two real problems, each worse than the other:

  1. The trustworthy person or business that fails to understand or take action on the symbols and mysteries that actually lead to trust, and as a result, fails to make the impact they are capable of.
  2. The immoral person or business who realises that it is possible to be trusted without actually doing the hard work of being trustworthy.

We may very well be moving toward a world where data is the dominant way we choose to make decisions about trust. In the meantime, the symbols and signals that mesh with our irrational worldviews continue to drive our thinking.


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