Top Trust Myths: 2 of 2: Trust is Destroyed in Moments

Trust takes a long time to build, and only a few moments to be destroyed. 

In my last blogpost, I suggested this is one of the all time great trust platitudes, and that the first part of it was as often untrue as it is true. 

In this post, I want to tackle the second part: the idea that trust takes only a few moments to be destroyed.

Moments of Trust Destruction

Let’s start with how trust gets built up in the first place. It’s amazing how often we hear both of these contradictory statements—and accept them both as true:

Generally, we trust someone until we’re proven otherwise, starting most relationships with a certain level of trust and building from there.


Relationships don’t begin with trust. Trust must be built day-by-day…conversation by conversation.

Which is it? Do we start with high levels of trust? Or do we build it up slowly? The fact that you can understand both points of view is a tipoff; once again, it depends on what kind of trust you’re talking about.

I think when we say things like “trust can be lost in a moment,” we are mostly in the former territory – that is, situations where we grant trust early on as the default position. It might be early in a personal relationship, where one person says something unexpectedly inappropriate. It might be an institutional relationship, such as a “personalized” mass mailing which misspells our name.

I think cases of egregious corporate behavior typically fall into this category, e.g. when BP lost the rig in the Gulf. But one might ask — who exactly trusted BP before the accident? And precisely for what did they trust them?

These cases of trust being destroyed in a moment are more like an electrical short in a traffic light. In a moment, our trust in the dependability of that light is destroyed. But all we had trusted it to do was to maintain switching capability. Its failure is not a wound to the heart.

Sloooowww Trust Destruction

By contrast, let’s look at cases of “rich” trust – situations where we have evidence of credibility, reliability, intimacy-capability, and low self-orientation. What happens when such a relationship is faced with a violation?

What happens to a marriage when one spouse behaves adulterously?   What happens when a Bernie Madoff refuses to answer routine questions about investment behavior to a client? What happens when a parent is informed that their child has committed criminal behavior?

What usually does not happen in those cases is the total destruction of trust. Most spouses first cope with infidelity by denial–and a great many adulterers are ultimately forgiven. Massive numbers of people chose to deny the evidence of Madoff’s malfeasance, and parents routinely insist that “I know my child, and (s)he could not have done that.”

As swindle victim Bobby Lall put it, "People say, ‘Why would you trust somebody like that?’ But your friends are the ones you trust. Pretty much your friends and your family’s about all you’ve got in life."

These are situations of grave betrayal: being cheated on by a spouse hurts worse than finding a new fee charge hidden in the small print on your bank statement. Yet it’s the minor trust transgression that causes us to “lose trust in an instant.”

The real big betrayals? We hang on, and on, and on.   We don’t lose trust in an instant – we are bled dry, very slowly, twisting in the wind.

When Trust is Lost Slowly, When Quickly

As we say over and over in this blog, trust is a complex phenomenon. Trust measurement without context is misleading at best, meaningless at worst. Trust management without context is aimless. Trust platitudes without context dependent on the listener’s tacit intuition of the context.

The speed at which trust is lost is a second- or third-order metric. It is not even driven by the speed at which trust is created. It is more accurate to think of “thin” trust and “rich” trust.

If Amazon incorrectly bills me for a book I never ordered, my loss of trust is quick and thorough. But it was never very rich; I trusted a billing system, not a friend, a lover, or even my dog. I’m annoyed, not destroyed. That’s thin trust.

If I spot my daughter taking money from my wallet without having asked me, I am quick to question her and to be upset; but I do not revise my fundamental assessment of her – I might even still let her use my credit card, albeit not quite so unconsciously.

Dr. Eric Uslaner, a leading academic on the subject of trust, has this to say in an interview I did with him:

CHG: What’s the biggest misconception about trust that you find people have?

EMU: That trust is fragile, or that it can be reestablished easily. Moralistic (or generalized) trust is learned early in life, from your parents, and it remains stable for most people throughout their lives. So you can’t break trust easily.

Again, he’s talking about what he calls generalized, or moralistic, trust. So as usual, it depends.

As if to prove Uslaner’s point, here is the tale of Eric Taylor, an Englishman who was conned and hustled by a real pro on a visit to Washington DC. Not just conned, but double-conned, by someone who knew a trust-sucker when he saw one and was quick to double the ante.

Here’s what Eric Taylor learned from his encounter with the swindler:

When my wife and I were discussing the incident for the hundredth time a few weeks later, she said: "And, if it happened again, I know you would react in exactly the same way, even knowing what you know now. And I would rather you were that way than the other."

Trust lost in an instant? Myth busted. It depends.

Top Trust Myths: 1 of 2: Trust Takes Time

Trust takes a long time to build, and only a few moments to be destroyed.

That has to be one of the great trust platitudes. In fact, it literally is: there’s a website that ranks the most popular trust quotes, and essentially that quote is number 3 (numbers one and two are inexplicably complex).

Many truisms are in fact true; that’s how they came to be truisms. But some are not; and this is an example.

Trust Takes a Long Time to Build? Not necessarily, in fact frequently not. That’s what I want to talk about today.

Trust Takes Only a Few Moments to Be Destroyed? Even less true. That’s what I’ll talk about next.

Trust Takes Time: Not.

“At once my mind was made up. I knew I could trust this young man implicitly,” goes a tale of petty larceny from the web. Researchers tell us that the propensity to trust can be increased or decreased simply by chemicals; increased by Oxytocin, decreased by testosterone. Neither takes long to administer.

How about trustworthiness? Think about the symbolism that goes on when you enter your physician’s office: the white coat, the stethoscope, the faint odor of something (I always assume ether, which probably went out with Sherlock Holmes), the degree on the wall. How long does that take? Not long.

“I trusted him instantly,” says Emma-Jane Corser of her husband, whom she met online. She’s not alone. This is profoundly common human behavior; we all make split-second decisions based on a variety of factors, few of which boil down to the kind of analytically-based routine we like to think of ourselves as following.

Peter Tingling and Michael Brydon write incisively in Sloan Management Review about “evidence-based decision-making” and “decision-based evidence making.” Jeffrey Gitomer says, “People buy with their hearts, and rationalize it with their brains.” Trust is hardly the only kind of decision we make quickly.

What Kind of Trust Takes Time?

Of course, platitudes don’t achieve that status out of thin air. There’s usually something to them, and of course there’s something here too. In the Trust Equation, one of the factors is reliability (the others are credibility, intimacy, and an other-orientation). Reliability is the only factor that requires the passage of time to be evaluated.

Think of all the ways we link trustworthiness to time. She walks the talk. He does what he says he’ll do. She’s never let me down. He’s always been there for me. If she says she’ll do it, you can take it to the bank. And so forth.

Finally, there’s what the social scientists and trust academics call “generalized” trust—the propensity to believe well of the motives of strangers, and to be generally optimistic about the future. That one, it turns out, takes ages to turn around—negatively or positively. As Dr. Eric Uslaner points out, generalized trust is pretty much installed with mother’s milk.

So: does trust take time or not? Clearly, this is one of those cases where the right answer is, “it depends.” And what it depends on is the type of trust we’re talking about.

Does it take a long time to be seen as trustworthy? Let’s break it down:

Type of Trust Takes Time?


Credibility Not much

Reliability Yes, by definition

Intimacy Not necessarily; usually pretty clear pretty quickly

Other-focus Not necessarily; usually pretty clear pretty quickly

Propensity to trust

In institutions Shifts over a few years

In specific people Not much time

Generalized trust A long time—typically from birth

Next Post, Trust Myth #2: Trust is lost very quickly.