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:
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.