The Power of Visual Cues for Building Trust

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 a person or organization if they know the names of other people who are already 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, celebrities or business leaders.

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.

This article updated in 2020.

Kim Harrison

Kim J. Harrison has authored, edited, coordinated, produced and published the material in the articles and ebooks on this website. He brings his experience in professional communication and business management to provide helpful insights to readers around the world. As he has progressed through his wide-ranging career, his roles have included corporate affairs management; PR consulting; authoring many articles, books and ebooks; running a university PR course; and business management. Kim has received several international media relations awards and a website award. He has been quoted in The New York Times and various other news media, and has held elected positions with his State and National PR Institutes.

Content Authenticity Statement. AI is not knowingly used in the writing or editing of any content, including images, in these newsletters, articles or ebooks. If AI-produced content is contained in any published form in future, this will be reported to readers.

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