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Building trust through subtle cues

01 Jun, 2020 Reputation, trust, stakeholder relations

This article was originally published in 2015 and has been completely updated in 2020.

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.

About the author Kim Harrison

Kim Harrison loves sharing actionable ideas and information about professional communication and business management. He has wide experience as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer, and CEO of a non-profit organization. Kim is a Fellow and former national board member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and he ran his State’s professional development program for 7 years, helping many practitioners to strengthen their communication skills. People from 115 countries benefit from the practical knowledge shared in his monthly newsletter and in the eBooks available from

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