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.

10 replies
  1. deborah nixon
    deborah nixon says:

    Interesting Charlie. We were just talking about this yesterday.  I agree that sometimes trust seems to be established quickly- academics call that swift trust.  And it is almost always about credentials, reputation , formal authority etc.  The more rational things in life.  So much also has to do with a person’s trust worldview- some  people are more trusting than others.  So glad you said it depends.

    In order to build a deep trust relationship, you need repeated interactions with a person.  You would call that reliability.  You’re right. But things like honesty take time to assess.  Empathy- yes you can be empathetic in a moment of sharing, but the only way I know you are sincere is your behaviour over time.  Not necessarily your reliability but your consistency.

    In my interviews, I heard many accounts of trust being lost quickly, in one fell swoop.  I look forward to your perspective in your next post.  It can happen in an instant and sometimes can never be recovered.


  2. Hermel
    Hermel says:

    You argue that people trust quickly in a doctor and conclude that it does not take much time to build trust. That’s a fallacy, because it took time to build trust in the institution the doctor represents.

    You confuse the transfer of trust with building trust. When people trust in a doctor, that trust was not freshly built, it was merely transferred from other things people already trust in, like the health care system that makes sure that only people who meet given requirements can call themselves doctors.

  3. Bwhipple
    Bwhipple says:

    Hi Charlie. As usual, I agree with the premise of this article. In my own teaching, I say that to gain a “seed” of trust upon which we can grow a lasting relationship of trust, You need to demonstrated a “handful of Cs” The 5 Cs are:

    Competence – or Credibility – applied knowledge
    Character – having integrity
    Consistency – being reliable – more on that below
    Congenality – a Friendly attitude
    Care – showing you care about the other person

    The 5 Cs can be demonstrated very quickly when meeting a person for the first time. Even reliablilty can be damonstrated by the body language and words we use when first meeting another person. For example, if I say I will get back to you on something, I make sure that I have your card and jot a note on the back. That signals that I am the type of person who acts in ways consistent with my intentions.

    As in Malcome Gladwell’s “Blink” I believe, as do you, that the seed of trust can be obtained in just a minute or so. After that, we need to plant the seed and nurture it well for trust to grow.  On the back of my business card, I have a picture of a pile of seeds and the following words…

    Seeds for Growing Leaders

    Plant in an environment of TRUST
    Sprinkle daily with humility
    Weed out negativity
    Place in the light of truth
    Be patient

    Enjoy the fruits of great leadership!

  4. Charlie Green
    Charlie Green says:


    Thanks for this; the 5 C’s work very well, I think, and the metaphor of a seed does too. Quick to be planted, but requires nurturing as well, I like it. 


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] Top Trust Myths: 1 of 2: Trust Takes Time, author Charles Green argues against the popular saying that “Trust takes a long time to build and […]

  2. […] Green makes this point about the relationship between trust-building and time in one of his blogs: Trusting quickly is a profoundly common human behavior. We all make split-second decisions based […]

  3. […] Particularized trust is what happens when we experience people to be similar to us. When a runner stopped to aid a race spectator, for example, or when the citizens of Watertown recognized that the police were on their side. This kind of trust is what we hear talked about most in the press. It’s what we mean when we say “trust takes time.” (Which it doesn’t, by the way; but that’s another story). […]

  4. […] For more information on this week’s Trust Tip Topic, you might also enjoy reading Top Trust Myths: Trust Takes Time. […]

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