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Building trust through subtle cues

By Kim Harrison,

Consultant, Author and Principal of

Developing trust in someone can be more subtle than we realize. Researchers from North Western University in the United States recently found that trust development can begin even before people meet or learn about one another's professional reputation or social status. To some degree, at least, the placing of trust is not the result of a deliberate assessment, but of subconscious cues.

The cues seem to be based partly on Cialdini's principle of social proof. People are more likely to trust others if they know the names of other people connected with the particular activity or commercial deal. An example is when people search for recognizable names on client lists or from professional connections when evaluating a potential partner in investment, real estate, or business. Confidence is gained simply from being familiar with those names, such as friends and family members, community leaders or celebrities.

The researchers point out that the changing nature of business, with increasingly fast-moving communications and travel, means that executives often have to build trust quickly among new co-workers and ever-forming teams. Given the importance of trust to organizational performance, one way to generate trust is for companies to use more visual cues such as project-related artwork or group photos that might prompt thoughts of successful past relationships. Company events that bring potential partners together can be particularly useful because they form the basis of future name recognition and trust development.

Deciding whether to trust someone, especially with your money, all too often is a matter not of slow, deliberate evaluation but of subconscious impulse. Name recognition plays a vital role; people can form impressions of others before they even meet, based on the new person's associates and the company they keep.

This study's conclusions break with previous research on trust, which identified the importance of incremental, evaluative processes in forming initial impressions of someone.

Instead, the research findings indicate if we are familiar with a person's name, we are likely to trust them more. This has implications for relationship development in PR activities.

Source: "What's in a Name? Subliminally Activating Trusting Behavior". Authors: Li Huang and J. Keith Murnighan of Northwestern University. Published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, vol. 111, no. 1, 2011.

About the Author

Kim Harrison is a recognized authority in the public relations field. His website,, provides a wealth of informative articles and resources on public relations techniques and management.


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