How revealing weaknesses can increase trust

Bond’s latest blockbuster, Spectre, broke box office records around the world, not bad for the 24th movie in the genre…

For a society that always moans about repeats on TV this is a little ironic, but having conducted research into the way people consume entertainment, the explanation is pretty simple. There’s a risk with an unknown film that it might be terrible, whereas at least with an old favourite you’re guaranteed a good evening.

This reaction tells us a lot about trust in general. There’s an important relationship between what we know about a person, product or company and our willingness to trust them. This is true intuitively: it’s difficult to trust a stranger, for example. Research also shows our most trusted relationships tend to be those we know the best (family and friends), which is part of the reason why ‘local’ services (like my hospital) score more highly than ‘national’ services (like the health service).

We also have more trust in companies we interact with than those we don’t. In the banking sector, for example, there a significant difference (c. 40 points) between my trust in my bank and my trust in other banks. Familiarity provides a greater sense of certainty and reassurance. Despite both having critics, it's therefore no surprise that supermarkets are one of the most trusted sectors and pharmaceutical companies the least. When was the last time you popped into your local pharma company to see what they are up to?

If there’s plenty of evidence that familiarity increases trust, what happens when the knowledge shared is about something negative, for example a weakness or failing? Does that still increase trust?

The answer is complex but there is clear evidence that being more transparent, even about things that aren’t positive, can increase our trust.

This won’t come as a surprise to users of customer review sites like TripAdvisor. We’ve all booked holidays at locations with some negative reviews and in part the reviews helped to confirm our decision (‘if that’s the only issue, then it will be fine’). There are now scientific studies to back up this belief.

Academics at the US National Bureau of Economic Research showed that when sellers of cars at auctions revealed more information about their vehicle, including negative points, it actually increased the likelihood of and value of the sale. This was because it removed doubts for those who would buy it ‘warts and all’ and because it helped people to self-select to participate in markets even where there were perceived negatives with the product.

Harvard Business School research has also shown that high levels of transparency about product costs (for example, the different costs of making a t-shirt) actually increased product attractiveness, even when it was revealed that they spent money on elements (e.g. shipping costs) that are less desirable.

However the relationship between familiarity and trust is not always even. Studies have demonstrated there is an asymmetry to the relationship: it takes substantial repetition of a behaviour (e.g. being honest with money) to become trusted but only a few instances of an opposite behaviour (e.g being dishonest with money) to lose it.

This is in part because of ‘negativity bias’, which means we are more likely to trust bad news than good news. In a study of claims about food colourants, academics at the University of Sheffield showed harmful messages are significantly more trusted than not harmful or beneficial messages. It seems we are less willing to believe the good messages and more likely to be persuaded by the bad.

However this study also provided an important additional argument to support the connection between familiarity and trust: confirmatory bias. Although we are predisposed to trust negative messages more, this doesn’t hold if they contradict our existing perceptions. In other words, familiarity can not only increase trust but it can also act as an insulator against negativity and distrust.

This was demonstrated in the most recent UK election campaign, when surveys showed how recall of positive and negative events was skewed according to party support. 38% of Conservative voters recalled hearing something positive from the Conservative party during the campaign and only 2% remembered something negative, whereas only 4% of Labour voters recalled hearing anything positive about the Conservatives and 36% remembered a negative. People's view of the news confirmed their existing understanding of the political debate.

Of course, while transparency is good, revealing everything doesn’t guarantee trust. It has to fit your story and your brand. If you are applying to be an accountant, admitting you flunked your maths exam first time around won’t help. It may be less important and even beneficial if you want to be a creative director. If you are a politician on a moral crusade, admitting past drug misuse may destroy your trust, where for others it may be seen to enhance it. Being transparent about your product costs is helpful until you show just how much money you are making, and at this point your true motives are revealed.

Toyota seem to have taken all this to heart. Car salesmen are the least trusted profession (even before this summer’s events) and accepting this premise, Toyota are airing an ad for their latest vehicle showing an actor wearing a lie detector. Their message is the car is great to drive but won’t improve your love life.

No doubt true. Just don’t tell that to James Bond.