Trust Me! Why You Need To Understand Trust, and How To Earn It

As we explored in my last article about Victor, the appliance repairman, trust is increasingly necessary and valuable in modern life. At the same time, trust is getting scarcer as well-publicized betrayals in business and government add up.

What is Trust?

But what is trust? The dictionary defines trust as the “Firm reliance on the integrity, ability, or character of a person or thing.” It’s about 1.) making yourself vulnerable to another; 2.) predicting future behavior, 3.) expecting that the behavior will be beneficial to you. We might add 4.) ascribing benevolent intentions to the person or organization you trust.

In behavioral economics, trust can be applied fast, based on intuition or heuristics, or slowly, based on careful analysis. We should be careful when making fast trust judgments because these can be subject to unproductive bias, as discussed below.

In moral philosophy, trust is about the prediction of the uncertain behavior of another as well as the commitment and ability of the other to deliver an expected outcome. Paradoxically, trust requires the risk of betrayal. (If a behavior is guaranteed, then there’s no need for trust in the first place!)

In neuroeconomics: trust is associated with a release of oxytocin in the brain that helps us feel attached to a stranger.

Earning Trust

Fortunately, there are several ways to earn this powerful and renewable human resource and to tell whether others are trustworthy. Performed authentically, these behaviors improve one’s predictability and ability to benefit others. They include:

  1. Act ethically, according to rules-based and virtue-based moralities. A person (or organization) who follows known rules and behaves according to certain virtues, regardless of cost, is more predictable and dependable than someone whose selfish cost-benefit analyses can depend on the circumstances.
  2. Behave empathetically, professionally, and with a genuine concern for others’ welfare. Avoid conflicts of interest.
  3. Nurture a long-term relationship; if parties know they’ll meet again and again, they know there will be consequences if they betray trust. They feel “the shadow of the future” and may behave better as a result.
  4. Be the first to be vulnerable by trusting, especially if the relationship is necessarily short-term, for example, a one-time transaction. Give the other party the ability to take revenge if you betray that trust. For example, my repairman accepts paper checks, which can be stopped, and relies on good Yelp reviews. This commits you to trustworthy behavior and signals confidence in your ability to benefit the other.
  5. Develop, protect and communicate a sterling reputation: increasingly, people rely on reputation, e.g., star ratings, as a short-cut to determine whether to trust you and the information, product or service you offer.
  6. Behave authentically and consistently according to shared norms, values, and language, regardless of personal cost or benefit. This increases your predictability. It also signals your membership in the “tribe”, which people use as a short-cut to decide whom to trust.
  7. Communicate honestly, transparently, and in plain language. This signals dependability because it leaves less wiggle-room should delivering on a promise turn out to be inconvenient. Authentic communication also helps you learn how to benefit the other better.
  8. Help the other party gain independence rather than maintaining dependence on you. Not only does this benefit them, but also it suggests a genuine interest in another’s wellbeing.
  9. Use storytelling in a way that makes you vulnerable and deeply engaged with others. This builds a deeper, emotional connection. For example, it has become much easier for me to connect with others about my financial wellness startup since I started sharing my family’s historical challenges with money.
  10. Keep your word and deliver results, i.e., benefits to others. All. The. Time.

You can also use this list to help decide whom to trust. People and organizations using one or more of these techniques authentically consistently are probably trustworthy. Take the time to consider these factors when the stakes are high.

Trusting With Your Gut

If you have had a lot of meaningful practice and success in deciding whom to trust under similar circumstances (e.g. nurses and engineers, groceries and large retail brands) then you may be able to rely on intuition. You may feel a sense of comfort, security, synchronicity, even affection for the people and organizations that are more likely to be trustworthy. You might sense discomfort, fear, and anxiety otherwise. A habit of non-judgemental mindfulness and effective feedback on your trusting decisions can improve your intuitions over time.

One caveat with intuitions: watch for unproductive bias. Unproductive bias is an automatic disposition to make decisions that can often be predictably incorrect. For example, we may be naturally disposed to trust people who look like us (in-group bias), have similar backgrounds (affinity), are recommended by someone famous (halo effect) or trusted by the group (bandwagon effect) and mistrust people based solely on negative stereotypes, implicit bias or associations (horns effect). If your past judgments have been poor, or you haven’t had much experience, you may be better off flipping a coin to decide whether to trust someone.

In short, Victor, the appliance repair guy, did all the right things to get me to trust him: great reputation; my ability to exact revenge; professional behavior; willingness to answer all my questions; advice on how to keep my dishwasher operating well; and most of all: delivering results. And I was correct to trust him. Let’s hope this article helps build more trust in an era when we need it more than ever.

Originally published at forbes.com here.