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Trust, trustworthiness and paranoid cognition
The power imbalances can lead to paranoid cognition and a lack of trust: we make the case for a focus on building trustworthiness
We often talk about the importance of trust and the way in which this is so central to policy making and marketing. But while we can see the value of trust, we argue that the onus also needs to be placed just as firmly on the more powerful party (such as brands, government institutions, employers) and not only the less powerful (such as consumers, citizens, employees): so we move from a focus on ‘trust’ to one on ‘trustworthiness’.
Flipping the focus in this way is helpful as trust is not an ‘ingredient’ of people but is a relational property that exists between us, not within us. And as any good social scientist will tell you, relations are typically mediated by power which can give rise to questions of trustworthiness. Given that it goes without saying that institutions are inevitably much more powerful that the individual, what does this imbalance mean for trust building?
The power imbalance
If one party holds power over another, then does the powerful side really need to take the other’s sides interests into account? If, for example, a company is the clear market leader and offers a product or service that others are not matching, then they may be less inclined to be concerned about maintaining trust.
As political scientist Russell Hardin pointed out, trust does not apply in a relationship where someone is holding a gun to my head as I will inevitably have to fall into line and act according to demands that have been set out. In these situations, the dominant party may renege on their stated or implicit commitments – customer service may decline, prices may rise, quality can suffer and so on. We do not need to think too hard of brands that have done just this from a dominant market position.
Of course, even though brands may hold a dominant market position, they still may seek trust for a variety of reasons. First, of course they may be committed to operating in an ethical way with a strong moral compass. Second, perhaps less altruistically, there may also be regulatory and reputational reasons why they need to demonstrate that their customers trust them. And of course, thirdly, other providers may start to appear and in a position that people feel they cannot trust the dominant brand, people may choose to take up the alternative proposal.
Managing the power imbalance
But if the brand is in such a powerful position that we feel any complaints we have may not be properly attended to, why should we trust it? In these circumstances it may be less about what a company does or does not do – and more about the perception that any commitment given may simply not be credible.
We can see how the power imbalance means that the question about what trust is and how we build it (or lose it) moves from the individual (and what the mechanisms are by which individuals build or lose trust) and towards the institution (how they need to act to build trustworthiness).
This is quite similar to what happens in everyday life: if one friend, Alex, is more socially attractive than the other, Kai, and values the relationship less, Alex can simply get away with things as Kai has fewer options (other than to end the relationship which Kai may not want to do). In this way, Alex can act in a less trustworthy way with impunity and Kai only trusts Alex on a small number of things while Alex is able to trust Kai to be reliable on a wide range of issues.
So, what happens in these circumstances? Two options are available: first, the more powerful Alex can stop reneging on arrangements and turn up as promised and as such establish a reputation for acting as promised. Doing what you say you are going to do is therefore particularly important in situations of imbalance: reputation is critical. But, of course, there will always be temptations to renege – if an enticing invite comes in then Alex may find it hard to stick to the arrangements. And in the case of the brand, if the share price is faltering, then it may well be tempting to cut customer service or quality standards.
The inevitability of mistrust?
This example offers some important lessons. First, where there are asymmetries of power then it is by no means a given that trust will be present and, in fact, it is very easy for distrust to arise. Our most attractive option as the less powerful party may in fact be to abuse the more powerful party’s trust: if we consider they are so powerful that our interests will not be taken into account, then we may decide to simply take advantage of them and only co-operate if we have to.
Of course, life is often not this simple, as we can never be sure of what the power imbalances actually are: we can never really be sure what the other party will do, and whether or not they will bother with our complaints. But in these circumstances, research on paranoid cognition suggests that less powerful actors will often construe the more powerful actors intentions in the worst possible light. Which means that even if the more powerful party genuinely wants to behave in a trustworthy manner, they may well often have difficulty persuading the less powerful of their good intentions. Research suggests that in these circumstances, even flattery can activate suspicion of ulterior motives.
The claims of the more powerful party may be authentic but the less powerful party may simply struggle to believe them and as such have no little vested interest in being trustworthy themselves. Disparities of power can easily give rise to mutual distrust. So how do we find a way out of this?
Solutions for building trust
If power therefore sits at the heart of many of today’s challenges about trust then we need to consider how to address the power imbalance. In the late 1950’s social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven published a seminal paper on social power, titled ‘The bases of social power’. They initially proposed five bases of social power, later adding a sixth. These are:
Reward Power: Using rewards to influence compliance and the desired behaviour
Coercive Power: Using punishments and threats to influence the desired behaviour evoking a sufficient degree of fear
Legitimate Power: When an authoritative figure and is perceived to have a formal right to make demands and give out directions to others.
Referent Power: When a person or institution is considered to be charismatic and admirable, allowing them to influence the behaviour of a target group or individual.
Expert Power: When a person or institution is deemed trustworthy because they are considered to be an expert within a certain field.
Informational power: This is used when a person or institution is able to influence the behaviour of others because of either i) their ability to access information, or ii) the possession of certain information which can be leveraged to make others comply.
We can then look at some of the activities that have been undertaken to address power imbalances with this in mind. Informational Power has arguably been used by the UK’s financial regulator, the FCA, when they propose new rules to tackle greenwashing and the Consumer Duty regulations across financial services through reducing informational imbalances. We could also see the way this applies to UK and the Food Standards Agency, ‘scores on the doors’ of showing the extent to which a restaurant complies with hygiene standards. A positive smiley denotes compliance, a negative smiley indicates discrepancies.
Another example of addressing power imbalances is through Referent Power via social media. For example, in 2020, L’Oréal Paris expressed support for Black Lives Matter in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Model Munroe Bergdorf challenged the brand, citing her 2017 firing over a Facebook post discussing white supremacy after the Charlottesville riots. This sparked a boycott, and promoted L’Oréal Paris’s brand president Delphine Viguier to take swift action, hiring Bergdorf to a diversity and inclusion advisory board, and donating $50,000 to a trans organisation and UK Black Pride. Viguier acknowledged the brand’s past shortcomings and took tangible steps to show they were working on being better. This shows the impact and opportunity of responding to Referent Power: while there was potential for a PR disaster, this was effectively turned around and in all likelihood the episode facilitated the building of trust through a demonstration of trustworthiness.
Building trust is all too often framed as building up levels in individuals (consumers, citizens, employees) so that they can be ‘more trusting’. What also needs focus is the trustworthiness of the brand (or governmental institution, employer and so on). And and understanding how trustworthiness may be hard to demonstrate if there is a large power imbalance. This suggests there is a case for brands (and other institutions) to think carefully about how to ‘earn trust’ by actions such as submitting themselves to scrutiny, being transparent in their behaviours and being mindful of (and swiftly acting on) feedback they get through social media and other channels.
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