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The obvious and rational equation is that being trustworthy plus being transparent will lead you to be trusted. Verification of trustworthiness should lead to trust.

This makes sense. Being trustworthy (acting in a way that’s worthy of trust) plus being transparent so that people can see your trustworthiness—this should be sufficient.

How then, do we explain that brands like Coke and Google are trusted? The recipe is secret, the algorithm is secret, and competitors like DuckDuckGo certainly act in a more trustworthy way.

In fact, trust often comes from something very different. It’s mostly about symbols, expectations and mystery.

Consider the relationship you might enter into if you need surgery. You trust this woman to cut you open, you’re 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 a surly 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, we make an effort to avoid imagining that they even exist.

In most commercial and organizational 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. And once the trust is broken, there’s almost no amount of transparency that will help us change our mind.

This is trust from ten thousand years ago, a hangover from a far less complex age when statistical data hadn’t been conceived of, when unearthing history was unheard of. But that’s now hard-wired into how we judge and are judged.

Quick test: Consider how much you trust Trump, or Clinton, Cruz or Sanders, Scalia or RBG. 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 tropes you rely on? Tone of voice? Posture? Appearance? Would more transparency change your mind about someone you trust? What about someone you don’t? (Here’s a fascinating story on that topic, reconstructed and revealed).

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

Real trust (even in our modern culture) doesn’t always come from divulging, from providing more transparency, but from the actions that people take (or that we think they take) before our eyes. It comes from people who show up before they have to, who help us when they think no one is watching. It comes from people and organizations 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. @ThisIsSethsBlog (Click to Tweet!)

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:

a. The trustworthy person or organization 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.

b. The immoral person or organization who realizes that it’s 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.

Originally published on www.sethgodin.typepad.com


Seth Godin has written eighteen books that have been translated into more than thirty languages. Every one has been a bestseller. He writes about the post-industrial revolution, the way ideas spread, marketing, quitting, leadership, and, most of all, changing everything.

Image courtesy of Daria Nepriakhina.