Trust Hacking

Leverage 6 Psychological Triggers to Gain Immediate Trust and Sell More

We only buy products from people or companies we trust. In today’s over-marketed-to society, people have an immediate primal anxiety and fear about being sold. Gain someone’s trust, and you’ll be able to sell the proverbial “ice to an Eskimo.” Lose someone’s trust, and you can’t sell water to a thirsty man in the desert.

However, we often underestimate the task at hand. Consumers have all been burned before by empty promises and defective products. Due to their past experiences, it’s an uphill battle to gain their trust.

We can shortcut the path to trust and sell more products by leveraging certain behavioral psychology principles called cognitive biases and heuristics. Cognitive biases and heuristics are mental models (sometimes irrational or flawed) used to reduce the time or energy for a task when making judgments. While there are over 100 cognitive biases and heuristics, I want to focus specifically on ones that give your product instant trust in the eyes of the consumer.

Hence trust hacking.

But first, a warning: I am in no way promoting black hat persuasion tactics for the sole purpose of getting money from people. You must first have a good product that will genuinely help consumers. These tactics will help get your product into more of the right hands. If that is not you, stop reading right now.


Below is a list of 6 psychological triggers (cognitive biases and heuristics) that gain the instant trust of your consumer. Along with each trigger is a short description and examples of how you can apply it today.

Trust Trigger #1: Ingroup Bias

What it is: The Ingroup Bias simply states that we like and trust people who we perceive as being similar to us.

How it works: It’s human nature to seek out like-minded individuals, and because we view them to be like us, we automatically trust them more. Conversely, we tend to distrust and doubt those who are dissimilar to us. This creates an us-versus-them mentality. Standing against something can be just as powerful in marketing as standing for something.

Examples: Think about the last time you talked to a stranger, only to learn you were from the same hometown. Didn’t you automatically like that person and trust him/her, even though you knew nothing about that person?

Affinity can come in many forms to be effective. Having similar backgrounds, such as birthplace or alma mater, will form an instant bond and engender feelings of safety and liking. Shared experiences, like serving in the same branch of the military or playing the same sport, paves a path for trust. Identical philosophies in religion and politics will give newfound companions more credence. Down go the defenses, because we don’t take advantage of those who we like.

We see this innate behavior all the time in nature- birds of a feather flock together.

Let’s look at the Harley Davidson brand. Harley riders have instant extreme affinity for other Harley riders. Seth Godin calls this “people like us.” This creates a radical sense of loyalty and builds a strong community. Harley riders are fanatical- so fanatical, it almost feels like a cult! They’re made up of a very specific type of person, and they identify with each other, saying, “People like us ride Harleys.” Do you think a newbie who wants to be known as a rider goes out and buys a Honda or a Harley?

Once you have self-identified with and committed to an ingroup, other cognitive biases kick in, strengthening your loyalty and dedication to the group. Some of those biases are confirmation bias (favoring information that confirms previously existing beliefs), availability cascade (repeat something enough times that the belief become reality), choice-supportive bias (proclivity to remember your decision better than it was), and selective perception (when expectations affect perception).

Application: How can you plants seeds of affinity in your marketing efforts or during your sales presentation? Does your marketing message convey that you are just like your prospect?

Trust Trigger #2: Mere-exposure effect

What it is: People tend to develop a liking and trust for things familiar. Affinity breeds liking.

How it works: Simply put, the more you’re exposed to something, the more you deem it trustworthy. Repetition often produces familiarity because it rewires neural pathways, thereby manifesting in a proclivity and assurance for the familiar. The first exposure to a novel stimulus (i.e., your product) will simply bring its awareness to the consumer. Subsequent introductions turn awareness into attention, moving it up the trust scale. As it moves further up the scale, a lure compels you until finally the trust is established and a desire for the product is set.

Examples: Have you ever bought a product because you see it just about everywhere, on the streets or in ads? Wherever you turn, there it is… until you buy one for yourself. Since it’s everywhere, it must be a big trusted product, right?

Researchers from Villanova University and Temple University gave college students a series of over 140 plausible statements on random topics the students wouldn’t normally be familiar with; half were true and half were lies. On three separate occasions, with two weeks in between trials, students were asked to assess 60 statements and rate their validity on a scale from 1 (not likely valid) to 7 (very likely valid). Out of the false statements randomly chosen, 20 were repeated to the students on the second and third trials. The findings show the false statements that were repeated were rated as more valid with every subsequent exposure to the statement.

How do you think ridiculous myths and rumors like, “Einstein failed his high school math classes,” proliferate? This is known as the Illusion of Truth.

This effect also has market implications that I call the Illusion of Trust.

In a study on banner ads, college-aged students were asked to read an article online while banner ads were displayed. In short, the study concluded that the group exposed to the “test” banner rated the ad more favorably than other ads shown less frequently or not at all.

Remember the last time you were on an ecommerce website, and threeminutes later on Facebook an ad for that product appeared? It’s called retargeting, and it’s currently one of the most profitable advertising mediums.. The mere-exposure effect is also illustrated in retail when we purchase the name brand item over the generic item simply because we’re familiar with it, even though nearly everything is the same besides the label.

“BUT HOLD ON,” I know you’re thinking. “What about those annoying commercials you see repeated at every break, ya know, the infuriatingly redundant ones? How ‘bout those radio ads that parrot the company’s phone number 20 times. COME ON, I hate those!”

Yea, I know, I hear you. But here’s the kicker… here’s the subtle distinction that will make or break this principle for advertisers and marketers.

Repetition is only effective when people aren’t giving you their full attention. A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that repetitive messages increased the persuasiveness of an argument (even a weak argument) but only when low involvement processing occurred. The brain is able to process emotions without conscious cognition. When your message enters your consumer’s full conscious awareness, you’re argument must be remarkably compelling because addition repetition will diminish the strength of an argument and become pestering.

That’s why subliminal advertising is so effective- you can control a consumer’s mind. Everyone (even “mad men”) are susceptible to subliminal advertising.

Application: How can you get customers to serendipitously bump into your product more? How can you get your product to stay top of mind for the customer?

Trust Trigger #3: The Authority Heuristic

What it is: When people in position of power (authority, expertise, influence, etc.) hold opinions on a certain subject, their opinions are regarded as trustworthy.

How it works: Legitimate authorities have usually achieved their positions through superior experience, skill, wisdom or power. When we are unsure or unclear how to act, we often turn to authorities for guidance. This shortcut allows us to utilize the knowledge of the expert so we don’t have to do all the hard work (and often avoid responsibility).

Sociologist Max Weber posits that there are three types of authority:

  1. Rational legal authority. This type of authority obtains its persuasive power from formal rules. Examples include John F. Kennedy, Bill Bratton and General Colin Powell.
  2. Traditional authority. This type of authority obtains its persuasive power from customs and social structures. Examples include Queen Elizabeth, the Pope and your boss.
  3. Charismatic authority. This type of authority obtains its persuasive power by demonstrating some type of exemplary trait (such as heroism or strength of character) that turns into respect and devotion for the figure. Examples include Robert Downey Jr., Tony Robbins and Elon Musk.
    The most interesting type of Charismatic Authority, in my opinion, is the celebrity. They are very prevalent in today’s society and have a lot of buying influence on the masses but are mainly known for being themselves (i.e., Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton, etc.). Think about it- we know they didn’t rise to fame for being smart or hardworking.

There are many different ways that consumers can identify authority. Titles, such as PhD, Governor or Olympic Gold Medalist, are often one of the hardest to attain by the authority figure, while they are often the easiest and quickest ways to identify authority for the consumer. Physical appearance, such as a white lab coat, briefcase or stethoscope, are inferred indicators of authority, but can easily be faked. Possessions, such as new sports car, penthouse suites or luxury watches, can have the same effect.

Examples: When was the last time a doctor gave you a diagnosis and prescribed a medication? Did you do a background and credential check of the doctor, go for a second opinion or price shop the medication? Or did you follow the doctor’s orders, no questions asked? That’s genuine authority at work.

One of the most cited examples of this heuristic in action is Stanley Milgram’s Obedience to Authority experiments. But authority comes in many different forms, such as doctors, lawyers, accountants, professional athletes, police officers, etc. No doubt you’ve seen ads that say, “#1 Doctor recommended pain medicine,” or “9 out of 10 dentists use our toothpaste.” This effect can be seen at an even more subtle level with product placement. If Frank Underwood uses a Mac, then maybe I should too…

When the book The Cuckoo’s Calling was published in mid 2013 by a war veteran named Robert Galbraith, it received raving reviews but sold a meager 1,500 copies, even with reviews in USA Today, Slate and Publishers Weekly. Months later, it was revealed that Robert Galbraith was only a pseudonym used by JK Rowling. Sales immediately rocketed up 185,866%, going from #4,709 to #1 on Amazon’s Best Selling Books list. Why? She has built a stellar reputation as a literary authority. Her name acts as an attentional shortcut. The quality of the book didn’t make it a best-seller, her reputation did.

Application: What authority figures can you leverage in your marketing? Where can you insert those figures (e.g., endorsements, testimonials, sponsorships, partners, etc.) to build trust?

Trust Trigger #4: The Bandwagon Effect

What it is: We tend to put our trust in something because we believe many other people have put their trust in it first. There is safety in numbers.

The phrase “jumping on the bandwagon” comes from American politics in the late 1800s. Dan Rice, a well-known performer at the time (mainly circus acts), used his bandwagon and loud music as a ploy to gain attention for his political campaign. As his popularity picked up, more and more people saw his success and wanted a seat on the wagon. He didn’t win, but this effect was so strong that it became a standard part of campaigning. However, it was so widely used that soon a negative connotation was associated with that term, insinuating that people wanted to join the crowd in order to affiliate themselves with success.

How it works: When we see a group of people we want to be a part of, social proof kicks in and the innate need to feel a sense of belonging drives us to conformity. We want to be part of the “in crowd.” This effect is so strong that people often ignore or even override their beliefs to follow the crowd.

This relies on assumptions, which we use as mental shortcuts. Our subconscious tells us, “If everyone else is buying this brand of toothpaste, then it must be good. I don’t have to go through the hassle of doing the work to find the best brand. I’ll just use the collective wisdom of the crowd.”

Examples: Have you ever decided which YouTube video to watch based on how many views it has? Social media makes this trigger extremely effective, showing you exactly how social each piece of media is, helping you easily jump onto the bandwagon.

Studies conducted by Solomon Asch in the 1950’s demonstrate the power of conformity. Participants were seated with confederates (actors pretending to be subjects but in actuality working for the researcher) and shown 3 lines of varying lengths. Then, they were given a 4th line and asked which of the 3 lines match ed closest wit the 4th. This happened several times, and everyone agreed. Then, all the confederates unanimously chose the obvious wrong answer. Researchers wanted to see how often the participant conformed to the group. Nearly 75% of the participants went against their better judgment and conformed to the group, giving the wrong answer. This is in great contrast to the control group, where less than 1% gave the wrong answer when there was no pressure to conform to confederates.

For another example of the bandwagon effect, we return to politics. Though we no longer use physical bandwagons, the effect endures. Many people wait until the last minute to vote when they have a good sense of who is going to win, then vote for that candidate. In a study of British general elections, Ian McAllister and Donley Studlar gathered Gallup exit poll data and found that voters who heard at least one opinion poll before election day (nearly 3 out of 4 people) were significantly more likely to vote for the favored party.

There’s much appeal for being associated with the winning party, be it in politic, sports, or any other area.

The crowd has the power to direct attention. A study by Harvard’s Michael Luca found that a 1 star increase on Yelp can boost a local business’s revenue by 5%-9%. In another recent study, two Berkeley economists found that a ½ star increase in ratings on Yelp improved its chances of having all of its seats sell out by 49%.

There are entire business models built around this concept. Think daily deal sites, like Groupon, which was one of the fastest companies to reach a $1 billion valuation. Also look at crowdfunding sites, like Kickstarter, which has reportedly received more than $1.5 billion in pledges.

Application: How can you create the effect (or perception) that everyone is buying your product? How can you prominently display popularity for everyone to see?

Trust Trigger #5: Scarcity Heuristic

What it is: As items become more limited and difficult to acquire, the perceived value of those items increase. This shortcut relies on a person’s perception of how immediately accessible or obtainable something is.

How it works: This trigger goes hand-in-hand with our previous trust factor. When there are limited resources, a trigger goes off in our minds and those resources suddenly become more attractive. Your subconscious tells you, “Those must be in high demand. I don’t want to lose out!” In his bestselling book, Influence, Robert Cialdini explains, “The tendency to be more sensitive to possible losses than to possible gains is one of the best-supported findings in social science.”

Examples: Have you ever been standing in the isle of the store looking at the dizzying array of items- say cold or allergy medicine- when you notice there’s only one box left of Allegra, but a dozen boxes left of all the other options? Which one did you buy?

We don’t need to look far for examples of scarcity as a business model. Antique stores and collectable items are doing extremely well. Twinkiemania was an extreme example of what people do in the face of scarcity. The Downfall Of Hostess Led people to auction Twinkies for absurd prices on eBay.

An experiment at the labs of Stephen Worchel, Jerry Lee, and Akanbi Adewole, participants were asked to rate cookies in their famous chocolate chip cookie experiment. One group was asked to take a cookie from a jar of ten, while the other group took a cookie from a jar of two. The cookies were exactly the same, but I bet you can guess which got the better rating.

This works with not only quantity, but also time. QVC has decided to implement a limit on both time and quantity, which has worked quite well for them. Retail stores leverage the time limitation whenever they can with holidays sales, anniversaries and pretty much any other excuse they can think of to have a sale.

Application: How can you use scarcity to emphasize the demand of your product? How can you portray a limited time or quantity to bump sales?

Trust Trigger #6: Anti-Inference Bias

What it is: seeing is believing.

How it works: People often question the validity of a claim based on facts, figures and theory, but when empirical evidence is introduced, they are converted to believers. The more dramatic the demonstration, the more awe is inspired, the more people will flock to buy the product. Hearing something hundreds of times is not nearly as powerful as seeing it once.

Examples: Have you ever been flipping through the TV channels late at night, only to stop on an infomercial and see kitchen knives cutting through a plank of wood, piece of rock and a hammer (yes, a hammer!)? Did you immediately want a set? Be honest- did you buy a set?

The entire infomercial business lives on this principal. We’ve all seen the Tempurpedic mattress demonstration where someone is jumping on the bed with of a full glass of wine of staying upright. Anyone who has been woken up by a restless partner in bed is in awe, saying to themselves, “If someone jumping on a bed doesn’t disturb a full wine glass, surely I won’t be disturbed when my partner rolls around at night. “

The most powerful demonstrations employ drama to make a point- usually risk or astonishment. Take Houdini for example. At a time when every magician was doing a straightjacket escape, he added drama and risk to astonish and win the crowd. Houdini escaped the straitjacket hanging upside down from a crane hundreds of feet in the air, or totally submerged in shark-infested waters. That’s drama! Introduce visual aides to add drama.

However, you have to be careful. Just as quickly as powerful demonstration can build trust, demonstration can also destroy trust, and along with it any chance of making a sale. With only the smallest hint of deception, incompetence or malfeasance, you’ll be banished from the hearts and souls of your audience forever. Use demonstration wisely.

Application: What kind of demonstration can you perform that will shock and awe your audience intro trust? What kind of drama can you add?


Trust isn’t being handed out like it use to. You have to work hard to earn your customer’s trust. Armed with the knowledge of these powerful triggers, hopefully you’ll have the advantage.

By being aware of these triggers, you can not only become a better marketer and salesperson, but you can also learn to protect yourself from these tactics used on you.

I trust you will use them wisely.

Special thanks to Lauren Bass and Adam Dorenfeld for reading early drafts and giving valuable feedback!