Do People Trust Rationally?

In the Q&A session of the webinar I gave yesterday, someone asked an interesting question: do people come to trust in rational ways? He didn’t mean “is it rational for people to trust the things they trust?” His question was about the ways in which we come to trust, not the choice we end up trusting.

The answer at first blush seems “clearly not.” After all, look at the success of con men, the concept of love at first sight, and, for that matter, the charisma of some politicians. Rational? Hardly.

And yet—if the way we come to trust isn’t logical, careful, thoughtful, cognitive and evaluative—then why do we act otherwise? Why do lawyers focus so much on briefs, consultants on proposals, and politicians on platforms? For many in business—particularly the professions—the belief that trust comes from rational argument is so deeply held that it’s enough to prove the opposite.

From a bastion of rational argument—Science Daily—comes more fuel for the non-rational side. In Extreme Appeal: Voters Trust Extreme Positions More Than Moderate Ones, Study Finds
we read:

Trying to appear moderate is not always the best strategy for capturing votes during an election, reveals a new study. Extreme positions can build trust among an electorate, who value ideological commitment in times of uncertainty.

[this is a] challenge to the widely accepted median voter theorem…in which voters who are fully informed will…choose the platform that is closest to their own beliefs. Thus…to attract the majority of votes, parties should try to appeal to the majority of voters.
The researchers argue that in the real world, few voters are “fully informed” or anywhere near it—thus the real persuasion happens not through individual voter policy analyses but through a comparison of the relative attractiveness of competing ideologies.

However, I think even this understates the non-“rational” approach to voting. Sure, to some extent we think “I’m more of a lib-social-democrat-cum-conservative-economics.”

But there’s more. There’s the power we all feel in the face of someone with certainty. Like confidence, it’s catching. It’s compelling. We may deplore sound bites, but they work—the war on poverty; government’s not the answer, government’s the problem. The Big Lie works because it’s simple: Saddam was behind 9/11, Obama is a Muslim. The less we know, the more awed we are by those who do know—or seem to.

Want to win an election? A (very) few voters swill tudy platform planks. A few more will “vote Democratic.” But more yet, I suspect, will vote for the guy who sounds like he’s got a simple answer to a complicated question.

From the same article:

"The current political advantage of the Republican Party stems from the ability of its candidates to develop ‘signature ideas.’ This strategy is rewarded even when the electorate has ideological reservations," says University of Southern California economist Juan Carrillo, adding that this poses a challenge for the Democrats.


Years ago, Herman Kahn of the Hudson Institute articulated the role of hypocrisy in social situations. A father in a small town, he said, doesn’t want his daughter to have access to pornography. And—if she finds it anyway—he wants to be able to say he didn’t know about it.

How can you talk about rational decision-making in a species that lies to itself?

The human mind is certainly complex. We like simple answers, but for complicated reasons. Sales author Jeffrey Gitomer says, “people buy from the heart, and then rationalize their decisions with the brain.” Often our brain arrives at rational decisions by bypassing “rational” thinking.

Do we come to trust rationally? No. It’s far more complicated than that. To describe human decision-making in purely rational terms is to under-estimate human nature.

Which means—if you want to be trusted, you won’t get there on powerpoint slides alone. Unless it’s just one slide. And real simple.

And you read it like it’s Revealed Truth that only you have access to.

3 replies
  1. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    Do folks trust rationally, you ask. Me? No.

    Basic trust, or true and real trust, comes at the ends of the four connections that lead from the head to the body and the heart. Basic, true and real trust is a felt-sense quality that one feels and senses, not “thinks.”
    It’s the “Allstate” sense of trust – that I feel “I’m in good hands – that emotionally, physically psychologically, and spiritually I feel “held”. It’s not a logical or ego-mind deduction or concept.
    Basic trust means that one truly feels cared for, one is sheltered from “trouble.” Basic trust is something we “sense.” Here one feels all is well, that one’s needs will be “taken care of”.
    On the other hand, when one’s environment (government, business, home…) is not adequate in its holding of one, when we feel disoriented, shaky, not sure, etc., there is a sense of abandonment, rejection, being unprotected, a feeling of negligence and incompetence of the one(s) we want to trust. While we may say we do trust these folks, it’s really a “fau&xrdquo; trust. There’s a deeper sense that our needs will not be met, things don’t feel or seem right. When this sense happens consistently we lose all sense of basic trust. There may be hope, or faith, but not “trust”.
    Human environments – government, business, schools, etc., are often inadequate and sometimes grossly so, we lose the basic trust we has as infants and grow up learning not to trust implicitly.
    So, here, we need to go through a process of re-trusting. This type of trust is not a one-shot deal and if it is, it’s usually attached to some type of faux trust, dysfunction, neediness, etc. and accompanied by some real of felt sense of fear, terror, rage, disintegration, anger, sadness, vigilance…and it’s not true and basic trust that operates. Maybe a hoping, a wanting, but not a trusting.
    When we come from a place of basic, true and real trust, we feel ourselves, sense ourselves as relaxed, with an effortlessness and ease. There’s a sense of smoothness and harmony and well-being. When the sense of trust is a “faux trust”, one reacts with a feeling of disharmony, anxiety, discomfort, and an agitating and irritating energy, feeling threatened, regardless of what one is “thinking.” One feels and senses the mistrust, “deep down” at the end of those four connections, regardless of what is operating “in the head”.
    So, voting, government? Hmmm. Those who experience basic trust as the source of casting their vote, IMHO, are few and far between. "Rational" trust? Perhaps. “Fau&xquot; trust? Most likely – but not a trust coming from one’s inner sense, one’s heart. For many of them, those four "cords" have long been severed.
     More’s the pity.
  2. Ken Allan
    Ken Allan says:

    Kia ora Charles!

    Trust? We’ve had this conservation before.

    It’s supposed to be cool to be capricious, cool to be democratic (whatever that means), cool to be so laid back you fall off the fence. Trust that is developed rapidly is done mainly through ignorance.

    People hate not knowing. They feel an urge to make their mind up in certain situations where trust is essential. So they find short-cuts to do this quickly:

    "Oh, I didn’t like the shoes he was wearing . . . " "something about the way he came into the room .  .  . " "I always distrust a man with a beard . . . ", etc.

    When there is a need to make a choice or form an opinion, and that need is evident to the person who must hold that opinion, they will feel uncomfortable until their opinion is made up. The ease that they feel when this is done is gratifying, to such an extent that they also dispel the doubts they may have had about their first formed opinion. It’s almost as if it’s a chemical thing, like a shot of alcohol, for it brings about a feeling of wellbeing. They then comfort themselves with the smug idea, "I know I’m right."

    The doubt is pushed to the background and, positive as people tend to be about their own opinion, they begin to look for other evidence to support their choice – which they find. Goethe was purported to have said, "If you look for evidence to support your ideas, you will find them."

    So is trust built quickly through rationality? I say emphatically, no.

    If it is proved that the trust quickly formed remains in tact over a long and testing period of time, it is likely that it is pure chance rather than good judgement.

    Trust that’s built through rationality takes time. It has to be earned, and that can take a long time. But when it does, through this formative period, it can be deep, solemn and sound – a trust on which life-long relationships are built.

    Ka kite
    from Middle-earth

  3. Ford Harding
    Ford Harding says:


    It’s an old saw in sales that people choose who to hire on the basis of their emotions and justify their decisionswith logic after the fact.  Because, as no one know better than you, hiring is based on trust, it is a small stretch from the old saw to saying that trust is emotion-based, too.  Anyone who has sold long enough believes the old saw.

    Ford Harding


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