The importance of trust in our decisions

As Americans go to the polls in three days, they face an uneasy choice. Whatever the outcome, historians will wonder how Hillary Clinton was unable to resoundingly defeat someone with such personal character flaws making such outrageous campaign promises and associations. Many academics will look to certain narratives: inequalities eight years after an economic crisis; disillusionment with the Washington establishment; and a white middle-class male backlash; but I think another issue has to be added to the discussion: that of the inability of Clinton to earn the public trust.

Donald Trump’s most successful campaign strategy has been to capitalise on the American population’s general lack of trust in the Clintons. In referring to her as lying, crooked, corrupt … Trump knew that voters would be very uncomfortable supporting someone they could not trust.

Trust is primordial in any relationship (and voting is a form of relationship) and in any decision. Can you comfortably make any decision without some level of trust? If I don’t trust Hillary, I cannot vote for her, and for many that would either entail not voting or supporting an alternative that is less than ideal. Trump has even escalated the trust deficit, building a grassroots force that believes that no one in Washington can be trusted and that the electoral process itself is rigged. Trust in the democratic system and the free media is now also under attack and this could be irreparable.

But what is trust? If it is so important, there should be books about it, shouldn’t there? Sadly no. Trust is relational, emotional and internal – it depends on each of our personal experiences. This beguiling nature is one reason I have been focusing on it for much of the last decade. Can Hillary get the trust back? That is hard – the common phrase rings true: “Trust is gained by the inch and lost by the foot”. If she wins, she will be a wounded president from the beginning. Without public trust, she has little credibility and thus no power.

We need to look closely at the concept of trust – what makes us trust or distrust – and better understand how it is used by influencers to gain or undermine power.

Would you take a risk with someone you did not trust? If you don’t trust your doctor, would you readily take the medication prescribed? If you don’t trust your girlfriend, would you marry her? If you don’t trust the food company (supply chain, retailer, restaurant …), would you happily eat the food? If you don’t trust the solvency of the bank, would you leave your money in it? At the heart of risk taking (implying both risk perception and risk management) is trust. So what is trust and why do we pay so little attention to it?

Trust is a human commodity to be developed, expressed, exchanged and exploited. As an emotional reaction, trust is outside of the domain of reason or common sense – it is felt in an inarticulate but very rich manner (although we try to rationalise it a posteriori). Children, at a very young age, build bonds on the basis of trust relations and events. A child might enjoy being tossed high in the air by a parent, but not by a stranger or a distant relative. (I sometimes wonder anecdotally if those who do not trust anyone or anything were at some point dropped as babies.)

Trust is also extremely personal and reflective of past experiences and events. People who have been bitten by dogs often stop in their tracks when confronted by an unleashed hound while others would stop and pet the animal. Those who have had food poisoning may be more particular about the quality of their alimentation while ravenous people like myself can rip through a meal without hesitation or even stopping to read the labels. People who have been lied to or abused by others might have different personal issues than those fortunate enough to have had happy, uneventful relationships.

The Elements of Trust

So while we cannot define trust (and why some individuals are more open to risk taking than others), we can indeed examine certain “elements of trust” which might go far in helping to explain why some people are more open to risk taking than others; why some respect the role of authorities in managing risks while others are compelled to challenge them; why some demand a world without risks and others look at the opportunities risk taking provides. As the Risk-Monger has frequently argued, we are not all precaution-obsessed and perhaps this brief analysis of trust might shed some further light on the limits of precaution as a policy tool.


The first element of trust to consider is familiarity. When something is new and too complex to understand or perceive (think nanotechnology or biotech), we might fear taking such risks (especially if they are perceived as unnecessary or providing little added benefit). Once we become more acquainted with the technology, we would likely fear it less. If the technology or the risk works itself into the societal fabric or narrative, the risk taking becomes ubiquitous (examples can include cell phone use, Botox, smoking, alcohol consumption, fast driving …). What is interesting here is the “justified irrationality” that familiarity implies. For example, a heavy smoker will think nothing of a few extra cigarettes during the day, but could cringe at the risk of trace amounts of dioxin in the food supply or chemicals migrating from packaging. We are inclined to take more serious risks we are familiar with than to take smaller risks we are not used to (I regularly stick cotton swabs in my ears even though the product packaging warns me very clearly to keep it far from my ear canal).


The next element of trust is kinship – the bonds we form with others who are like us in heritage, thought process or activity. Groups (and group mentality) reinforce similarities and lessen or enhance any risk perceptions we might have. Someone might become more easily afraid of pesticide residues within a group of expressive organic food activists who all share similar stories about the food risks. With social media and the personalisation (RSSing) of information, justified irrationalities proliferate more widely and rapidly (think of how dangerous Obamacare is perceived to be to American Republicans!). The more we hear something in our community, and the more our friends repeat it, the more we trust the information as factual (think the story of fighting climate change and our growing impatience with authorities who do not act quickly). The Risk-Monger has often warned about the political dangers of “commonality”. Indeed, social networking has grown as the most effective trust-building tool: we trust our friends (that is about all we trust any more) so if our friends like a movie or a product or raise alarms about a practice or technology, we will more readily agree. Twitter and Facebook have enhanced the power of environmental NGOs to emotionally spread their ideology at a more personal level (gaining more trust with fewer facts).

Natural v Synthetic

We trust things that are natural (or perceived as traditional) and fear things perceived to be man-made or synthetic. French activists seem to be terrified of GMOs but have no problems consuming unpasteurised (traditional) cheeses that kill dozens every year. We will drink coffee throughout the day even though, of the thousand plus (natural) chemicals in that cupper, we have only tested a few dozen (of which the majority have been found to be carcinogenic to rats); even though there are more toxins in a single cup of coffee than you would find in the pesticide residues of an entire year of fruit and vegetable consumption. There is no logic, no rationality here – we trust nature (and we trust those who defend nature).


Despite all of the reassuring data, why do so many of us feel afraid when we fly? On top of the catastrophic nature of a crash, we surrender control (agency) when we strap ourselves into an airplane and are asked to place our trust in a stranger. Agency is perhaps the strongest element of trust. Today policymakers try to legitimise themselves by consulting and involving the population in the decision-making process. Even if we have no relevant expertise, we expect to participate today in public risk management and do not trust decisions that are made “not in our name”. This is a bit of a one-way train wreck: Asking non-experts to pass judgement on issues they do not understand and can easily be made afraid of, and then have authorities they do not trust implement these decisions, skews the process heavily towards precautionary decisions. So despite the rantings of the European Environment Agency that the precautionary principle will restore trust in science, we can see that it is built on, and fosters, mistrust.

Tied to agency and the participatory demands on a decision-making process is the corollary that the process needs to be transparent. If someone or something is not transparent, it cannot be trusted. If I am not being informed about something that concerns me, I judge the situation as non-transparent and threatening. I demand labels or open access to information so that I can participate in the decision (even if, in most cases I don’t inform myself). Not being transparent is a one-way ticket to not being trusted as the GMO labelling campaign in the US has shown.


I had a old car about 20 years ago that had some technical issues. About once a month, it did not start and caused me some considerable inconvenience on my schedule. Some would consider a 98.5% success rate as not too bad, but that unpredictability made me feel distrust every time I put the key into the ignition. Even though I was a poor student trying to raise three small kids at the time, I went out and bought a new car!

If something or someone is unpredictable, then our trust is diminished. If we pay money for a product or service, then we have little tolerance for less than 100% predictability (look at the pickle Samsung finds itself in at the moment with “exploding” phones and washing machines). We don’t have that same demand if we trust that someone cares for us – I’ll forgive a dear friend who lapses if I believe he or she cares for me. That is why we tolerate imperfections of claims made by NGOs – they may be frequently wrong or unpredictable, but as I believe they are acting in my interest, I can tolerate it. My “watch-dog” might bark at the moon 99 times out of 100, but I will reward it for that one time it catches an “undesirable”. Imagine a company making a mistake one time out of a million? Intolerable and never again to be trusted.


We trust something if we believe it to be authentic. Authenticity has best been defined by Fleishman-Hillard as the meeting of expectation and experience. If I expect something to happen (my car to start), and I experience it, then trust is confirmed and strengthened. A Cocaholic goes through at least five stages of trust confirmation when opening a can of Coke (having their expectations delivered upon from the cool mist on the can to the familiar sound of the can opening). Coca-Cola, as with many other brands, takes consumer trust as essential and thus invests in delivering an experience aligned with expectations. If something or someone is judged as not authentic, then trust is lost.

Loss of trust

These elements of trust point then to certain trends in studying trust today, and it does not bode well for risk management. We have less trust in our leaders and authorities today as we have lost the capacity for “followship”. The participatory decision-making approach was built on attempting to legitimise authority by transferring leadership to the collective. We have no trust in business or industry, not just because of the profit motive, but because recent events have highlighted the lack of control and kinship in commerce. I railed at how the chemical industry tried to rebuild trust outside of the supply chain and I have serious concerns about whether the banking industry is even aware of how badly damaged their trust deficit has become. Scientists are losing public trust (that white-coat comfort) as public disagreements on issues like climate change expose scientists as political and motivated by other elements than discovery.

Environmental NGOs like Greenpeace have used this growing trust deficit to their benefit, encouraging fear and mistrust for their own political objectives. They have a trust surplus and they regularly exploit it knowing full well that the justified irrationality of their arguments need not depend on facts or evidence.

Trust is also a tool easily manipulated (the US election process is a wonderful demonstration of this). With trust comes influence, and in today’s media-obsessed world, influence is power. The Risk-Monger then needs to find a way to get more people to trust him … then he’ll have more power!!!

15 Comments Add yours

  1. AlainCo says:

    FYI the subject is covered, in a very technical and deep way by Bruce Scheneir, one world reference in cryptography and digital trust.

    Your approach are different, because your questions are differents…

    Anyway I agree with your explanations of today’s distrust for science.

    I think there is also a problem of religion (as you explain, old religions are dying), and of money.
    Stan Szpak (US Navy Spawar) said something like « scientists believe whatever you pay them to believe ».

    I feel that todays deliria is simply the only way for some politician and scientist and journalist to survive in their business.

    truth is not the question.

    and guess why, since people tells lies to survive, the piblic lose trust and hear for an alternative, and find some who lies even more.

    after the lies of Hillary on US wars, they go to an even worse liars, Trump.

    one problem also, well explained by Benabou, is that people will not believe for the dirty reality becausethey would realise they are much more damaged by their trusted liars. they vote for bigger liars who explain they have a solution with no pain.

    Stan Szpak « scientists believe whatever you pay them to believe »


    1. riskmonger says:

      Thanks Alain. People choose to hear what they want to believe. The social media tools allow me to more easily choose my tribe and get affirmation that I am right, or seek validation if I am feeling vulnerable. I did not get a chance to go into this element in this blog – I did a second blog on trust I should reprint on the new site, where I note that people look for trust when they are feeling vulnerable. To follow up, but I have an ethics panel this week and I notice these things don’t get done by themselves!
      Not sure I like the last quote from Stan Szpak – I defined “activist scientist” to qualify the disqualified but I believe there is a large majority that are fed up with the activist scientists – see the recent outrage at IARC.


  2. AlainCo says:

    about Stan, his history is amazing. putting his quote in perspective is fascinating and may even push you to dismiss me.
    Domain of bad science, academic science, consensus, groupthink, is like Matrix movie color choosing.


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