When pushed, people struggle to tell you what trust is. They’ll admit that it is an essential, even inescapable, part of a business relationship, but can’t quite define it. It’s just a good feeling, they’ll say. You know when it is there. Yet, the authors of a recent book on the science of trust in business relationships claim that research has uncovered much about the ingredients of trust, which means that it is possible to predict which service providers you will end up trusting and which you won’t.
No need for trust without risk
The first observation scientists have made about trust is that you only need it in situations of vulnerability. How vulnerable we are to a service provider depends on the nature of the service, of course. It makes a huge difference, for instance, whether we are choosing a dentist to clean our teeth or to pull them. When we are exposed to risk (such as when we hand our money over to someone else to manage, as an obvious example), we will only put our fate in another’s hands if we trust them. So, the greater the risk or vulnerability, the greater is the likelihood that we are engaged in high-trust relationships.
There is more than one kind of trust
There are three types of trust one can have in a counter party. They are known as system trust, role trust and interpersonal trust.
System trust is the confidence we have in the reliability of the legal and regulatory framework of the jurisdiction the provider operates in. Does this place respect the rule of law? Are there property rights? Is there a robust and independent judiciary? In the US, for instance, despite the occasional scandal, people generally have confidence that state and federal institutions will operate in the way they were intended, both now and in the future. Hence, all US-based service providers inherit a little of this system trust.
Role trust is the confidence we have in a service provider’s brand, credentials, reputation, etc. In our decision to trust a bank or a broker, for instance, we pay attention to whether they are overseen or regulated by a competent body, such as the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. We will also look for evidence of good credentials, like licences, membership to trade bodies, or the use of the most secure technology. With role trust, we start to distinguish one provider from another. However, when all operators in a sector start to adopt common standards, role trust morphs into system trust. An excellent example of this is the iGaming industry’s use of RSA Tokens for two-factor authentication. As industry operators increasingly use the technology for video gaming, casino gaming, and role-playing games (which raises the role trust associated with each), the secondary effect is the increase of the system trust attributed to the entire sector.
Interpersonal trust is the belief in the counter party’s ability and motivation to act in our best interests. This is the kind of trust that one person has towards another specific person. Here, the other’s qualifications and education will play a role in our trust evaluation. However, studies reveal that the most important factor in our decision to trust is how much the other cares for us. This caring is reflected in their customer-orientation, their attentiveness, and their willingness to understand and respond to our needs. Caring providers are interested in our well-being in the widest possible sense—not just in the usefulness of the product they are selling on any given day—and will give us a heads-up on any nasty surprises that are waiting for us down the road.
Trust comes naturally
We humans are social animals, so trust comes naturally to us. We enter every encounter ready and willing to trust. If it doesn’t emerge, it is because the other person did something wrong. This means that the battle among service providers to win our trust is theirs to lose. Nor does anybody need to be told whom to trust. We are all remarkably sensitive to the clues that others reveal about themselves, especially to those that concern their abilities and motivations. The breakdown above simply shows us why we trust and allows us to check that we have examined the three sources of trust that will shape that decision.