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.

6 replies
  1. Andrea Howe
    Andrea Howe says:

    Thanks, Charlie, as always, for the provocative post.

    You give some pretty heavy examples — infidelity, Madoff. I think there are also more garden-variety, everyday business examples to highlight where the paradoxical nature of trust really comes to light. I call these "moments of truth."

    For example, imagine a client asking you point blank what experience you have with xyz. You know in your head, heart, and gut that the answer is "none." And you also know this is not the answer the client wants (or the answer you want to give). In that moment, it’s just plain HARD to tell the truth, and I think that’s at least partly because we humans fear it under the guise of, "Ugh, all trust will be lost now!"

    And yet it’s exactly the opposite that occurs–when we say what there is to be said, in plain human talk with no spin control, trust is built rather than destroyed.

    Fascinating stuff.

  2. Shaula
    Shaula says:

    I agree with Andrea that this stuff is fascinating!

    I’ve been thinking about this article since you posted it, and I find that for me the salient categories aren’t thin trust vs rich trust, so much as rational and irrational trust.

    I’m not using those terms in a pejorative sense: I mean them in their very literal meanings of relating to reason or not based on reason, where emotional investment / attachment is the big distinction between thin and rich trust.

    The examples of default trust strike me as lacking a signficant emotional component: the relationship between parties may be  new or just not personalized or emotionally significant, and the truster is not emotionally invested (yet) in the partner or the relationship. Thus, when new information comes to light, that new information can be weighted against the existing information, affecting (increasing or decreasing) trust.

    In constrast, what you cite as rich trust relationships all have a strong emotional investment. And, except for the instances of exceptionally rationally-minded people, for most of us emotions trump reason (hence the strong emotional appeal and limited information of so many advertising and marketing campaigns).

    Put differently, note that transactions are more likely to be rational, and relationships are more likely to be irrational.

    I don’t know that rational and irrational trust break at different speeds so much as for different reasons: rational trust would be vulnerable to logical or emotional offences, whereas irrational trust is less vulnerable to logic but just as vulnerable to emotion.

    Why was Eric Taylor so vulnerable to con men? Because they prey on emotions (and emotional manipulation), and being armed with information won’t help most people against being conned.

    In contrast, in Shakespeare’s Othello, how does Iago turn Othello against his wife Desdemona and break Othello’s trust in her? Iago uses a campaign of highly emotional manuplation–not logic.

    Or think about when you’ve ended relationships (personal, business, consumer, other) in your own life: how often was the decision to end based on a reasoned assessment of the situation? How often was the decision process triggered by an emtional "last straw" that in itself wasn’t that important?

    How difficult is it to break an emotional bond based on information alone? Check out this study on College Students’ Resistence to Criticism of the Disney film "The Little Mermaid".  (I hope you’ll take a look. It starts to get fascinating around page 13.) Then stop and think about every time in business you try to help clients implement a new practice or change any behaviour or pattern to which some staff or clients have an emotional attachment . . .

    I’m afraid I’m too lazy to write a nice html table ;), but here’s how my grid comes out for the speed at which trust breaks:

    rational trust + (rational or emotional offense) = quick break

    emotional trust + (rational offense) = slow erosion, but minimal effect

    emotional trust + (emotional effense) = quick break

    I suspect we could hash out better terminology than I’ve used here, but I hope I’ve made sense.



  3. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:


    First of all, brilliant commentary.  You have certainly advanced my understanding of the subject; thank you for that.

    Secondly, where do you come up with this stuff!?  I loved the Little Mermaid study, and would add my encouragement to others to read it as well.  Very well-designed study to explore this subject.

    Really, really good stuff Shaula, thank you.


  4. Shaula
    Shaula says:

    It’s my pleasure, Charlie. I’m just happy to be able to share this stuff with someone who seems to enjoy it as much as I do.

    How do I come up with it? Voracious reading of a wide range of sources, with a good measure of serendipity thrown in. And finding information is the easy part: putting it to good use is the challenge.

    Further to the Disney study and the issue of what it takes to change positive opinions, here are two more relevant (and, in the second case, frightening) recent articles:

     * (The Power of) Unconscious Branding
       — with more here: How does conditioning affect consumer choice?

     * How Facts Backfire

     . . .

    The takeaways for me are:

    1. If you invest in cultivating relationships (in your personal or professional spheres), you have a deeper reserve tank of trust (or more social capital, or a bigger margin of error–however you like to look at it) to draw on when things go wrong.

    2. If you can (re)educate yourself, and teach your children skills like critical and analytical thinking, healthy skepticism, media literacy, and a rational mindset, you achieve a significant advantage in resisting attempts to manipulate you.

    3. Given that most people don’t have that kind of education or those skills or inclinations, understand that most of your efforts to convince / persuade / motivate people using rational arguements, in the sense of arguements based on information and appeals to logic, are going to fail. More to the point for this conversation, attempts to *rebuild* broken trust using rational appeals are usually going to fall flat.

    4. If you want to cultivate relationships, build trust, or influence people, and you want to succeed, you need to figure out how to work within an emotional framework. (I’m not wording that well, but you know what I mean.)

    While #2 is outside your professional purview, but I find #1, #3 and #4 very consistent with your work.

    Dale Carnegie is the really the guy who pioneered #4. (Has anyone managed to say it better since?) I find Robert Cialdini’s work and a lot of the interesting stuff on mental heuristics coming out of social psychology very useful for #4, too. as well as a lot of work going on right now in the fields of User Experience and Customer Experience.

    It’s a fun time to be paying attention to this stuff.

    One of the things that I loved about your workshop (and which Andrea’s great post Everyday Empathy reminded me about), by the way, was how powerful the exercises were, both in bringing this sort of theoretical discussion down to a very practical, tactical level that participants could apply outside the workshop, and the the deep gut understanding (vs a purely above-the-neck intellectual understanding) that it left us with.


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