We’ve exchanged a few emails over the years, and I’ve found your insights very helpful. What I’m looking for today is any sort of academic research that has looked into the possible association between trust and communication. I’ve read many of the standard research articles by Covello, Slovic, Rowan, etc., but was wondering if you knew of anything specific.
The reason I’m asking is because my organization has been separating efforts to build a culture of trust from strategic communications, which I think is completely counterproductive. How can you have trust without effective communication skills and vice versa?
I just know that the folks I work with would respond much better if I can reference/cite academic research in this area.
I am a notoriously poor bibliographer. I used to read most of the published risk communication research but failed to keep track of what I read where (and what I read nowhere but thought up – or made up – myself). Now I can’t even claim that. As you know, the riskcomm research literature has burgeoned, and my reading hasn’t.
And I confess I find the research literature to be fairly low-grade ore – too many methodologically careful examinations of narrow questions of greater theoretical interest than practical importance. I’m not terribly interested in relationships that are statistically significant but small, accounting for only ten or twenty percent of the variance.
I also have less confidence than I used to have that citing research support for riskcomm claims makes a big difference to technically oriented clients (or in your case colleagues). It seems to me that my clients’ objections to my recommendations are more grounded in their egos and their own outrage than in my failure to provide enough evidence. I have gotten further as a consultant by addressing these unstated motives to dismiss my advice than by taking clients’ demands for proof too much to heart. (See my 2007 column entitled “Talking with Top Management about Risk Communication” for a bit more along these lines.)
Still, you’re obviously right that it would be good to have more and better evidence to support our assertions about the relationship between trust and communication.
It’s a bit hard to imagine a study to show that lying to people leads them to mistrust you! I’m sure it’s provable, but it’s almost self-evident. On the other hand, I’d love to have studies showing that exaggerating/overselling X leads people to mistrust you about Y. I say this all the time – for example, that people mistrust public health claims about flu vaccine safety in part because public health officials so routinely exaggerate flu vaccine efficacy. I can provide plenty of examples besides this one that I think illustrate the point … but I don’t have any quantitative studies that prove it (though there may be some).
Similarly, it would be nice to have proof that candor (especially admissions against interest) increases trust.
I do remember one study that’s somewhat on point: “Presenting Uncertainty in Health Risk Assessment: Initial Studies of Its Effects on Risk Perception and Trust” by Branden B. Johnson and Paul Slovic. (This article, published in Risk Analysis in 1995, is available online to subscribers.)
Johnson and Slovic found that acknowledging uncertainty increased perceived trustworthiness and decreased perceived competence. As I recall, the study authors interpreted this finding as one good effect (increased perceived trustworthiness) and one bad effect (decreased perceived competence).
I would tend to see it as two good effects – because excessive public confidence in the “competence” of officials to work miracles is unsustainable and therefore harmful; it’s a precursor to disappointment and feelings of betrayal. But I have rarely succeeded in persuading my clients that they shouldn’t want the public to assess their abilities more highly than they assessed them themselves.
In this context, it’s worth wondering whether Germany’s E. coli outbreak (ongoing as I write this) might have done less damage to the credibility of public health if German authorities had aggressively insisted from the outset that they weren’t sure they had nailed the source of the outbreak correctly and might very well have to back up and correct themselves in the days to come. My best guess is that people would have been just as cautious about eating cucumbers, lettuce, and tomatoes, and better prepared to learn later that they should have been avoiding sprouts instead.
I’m sure there are more studies out there that address the relationship between trust and communication, and even the relationship between trust and risk communication. But I’m the wrong person to ask for bibliographic help!
Thanks so much for your response and insights, Peter. I always find them helpful.
I fully agree with everything you’ve said, with the exception of research being minimally helpful. In my world, most non-communication people have responded very well to what evidence-based research has to say.
Do you have any specific suggestions that might help my case in arguing why communications SHOULD be included in the trust-building initiative?
I continue to be flabbergasted that these have been separated completely and absolutely. I have tried my best to convince “the powers that be” to reconsider, but to no avail. For example, the trust team is conducting a pilot project starting next month to assess the baseline level of trust at several sites. To me, this would also provide the perfect opportunity to assess baseline perceptions of communication effectiveness, preferred communication methods, level of knowledge/understanding, trusted sources of information, etc. But I’ve had no luck.
At this point, I’m ready to give up the fight for now since the project starts next month. But I feel quite strongly that at some point leadership has to reconsider this segmentation of efforts, particularly when it comes to the research the trust team is conducting. I also fully agree that ego and/or personalities may have something to do with the decision, so it will take me some time to suss all that out.
As always, I appreciate your taking the time to respond to me. I’ll be sure to continue monitoring your website (which I find very useful), and will likely be in touch again.
As I read your second comment, I began to suspect that your organization may be focusing too much on trust and too little on trustworthiness.
I’m not sure I like the idea of a “trust team” busy assessing the extent to which people trust your organization, presumably in order to figure out how to convince people to trust you more. I’d rather the team focused more on asking respondents about the sources of mistrust: “What are the things we have done or said that made you trust us less?” Learning how your organization has earned its stakeholders’ mistrust strikes me as more actionable than learning how much they trust or mistrust you. It could lead you to reconsider some aspects of the way you have acted and communicated. It might even lead you to consider acknowledging and apologizing for some of your prior actions and communications.
I believe that organizations that work hard to be trusted rather than working hard to be trustworthy are barking up the wrong tree. This isn’t just a matter of needing to earn trust by being trustworthy – of seeing people’s trust in your organization as more a characteristic of you (your behavior and communication) than a characteristic of them. On a more fundamental level, I think wanting to be trusted is a mistake.
There are good reasons why people should be skeptical about the risk claims of government agencies and corporations. This is especially true of government agencies and corporations that are not neutral observers but interested parties: that are sources of the risk in question or at least deeply committed to their stance on that risk. Even if your organization has a pretty good record for integrity, you may still face understandable temptations to cut corners. Wise stakeholders should be aware of those temptations and hang onto their skepticism.
Moreover, I think it’s dangerous to be trusted. The more trusted an organization is, the more tempted it is to take advantage of that trust – exaggerating its confidence and understating its uncertainty, making debatable positions sound inarguable, suppressing contrary factoids, etc.
This is part of the reason for my controversial and even paradoxical contention that public interest organizations (activists, academics, public health agencies, etc.) are actually likelier than multinational corporations to cut ethical corners in their risk communications.
Bad guys know they usually can’t get away with dishonest messaging, so they’re less likely to try. Good guys cut more corners both because they know they probably won’t get caught and because they think their pro-social ends justify their not-so-punctilious means.
For a cavalcade of examples from my 40 years as a risk communication consultant, see my 2009 Berreth Lecture to the National Public Health Information Coalition, “Trust the Public with More of the Truth.” For a single extended example, see my 2010 Guestbook entry, “Why did the CDC misrepresent its swine flu mortality data – innumeracy, dishonesty, or what?”
Trust, in short, tends to sow the seeds of its own undoing: The more trusted we are, the more likely we are to betray the trust, get caught, and no longer be trusted.
That’s why I advise my clients to forswear trust as a goal. Instead they should aim for trustworthiness and accountability. I advise them to act in trustworthy ways, and to set up accountability mechanisms so stakeholders don’t have to trust them; instead, stakeholders can “verify” their trustworthy behavior. (As Ronald Reagan famously said about arms control negotiations: “Trust, but verify.”)
The paradox of accountability: If you know you have mechanisms available to you to catch me if I cheat, and you know I know it too, then you have reason to think I probably won’t dare to cheat, and therefore you have reason not to resort to those accountability mechanisms very often.
Accountability and trustworthiness go together. If you know I’m accountable you can afford to trust me. Trust and trustworthiness don’t go together. The more trusted I am, the more tempted I will be to behave in untrustworthy ways.
Try talking the management of your organization into this perspective on the actual relationship between trust and trustworthiness. It carries with it the marriage of trust issues with communication issues that you are trying to promote. An organization that has thought deeply about the relationship between trust and trustworthiness would be less interested in asking stakeholders how much they trust it, and more interested in asking them what are the things it does and says that lead them to trust or mistrust it. Such an organization would also put a priority on asking stakeholders what accountability mechanisms they are aware of, and what accountability mechanisms they would like to see added or strengthened. Above all, perhaps, such an organization would want to ask stakeholders how confident they are that there are sufficient accountability mechanisms in place to keep the organization communicating honestly.
Even without rethinking the relationship between trust and trustworthiness, a sensible organization understands that both trust and trustworthiness are fundamentally communication variables. I think you’re right that it’s “ludicrous” to ask your stakeholders how much they trust you without simultaneously asking them what they think about your communication efforts … which are bound to be at the core of why they trust or mistrust you. Mistrusting you pretty much means seeing or sensing a discrepancy between what you say and what you do, or between what you say and the external, objective truth, or at least between what you say and what more trusted sources say. So exploring whether people trust you without exploring what they think about what you say is kind of silly.
It’s also worth noting, in support of your argument, that trust in individuals is very different from trust in organizations. Typically but not invariably, stakeholders trust the spokespeople they know more than the organization those spokespeople speak for. So it’s silly to ask people whether they trust or mistrust your organization without asking them whom they trust or mistrust when speaking for your organization.
Another thought, along entirely different lines: Is it possible that your management is resisting yoking trust to communication because they want to be trusted because they did the right things, not just because they said the right things? We have all encountered this view, grounded in the aphorism that “actions speak louder than words.” Some non-communicators genuinely believe that communication is almost intrinsically untrustworthy, that wise stakeholders ignore mere words and focus exclusively on deeds.
However naïve, this is an honorable perspective, and if you think it’s part of the resistance you’re encountering, you need to rebut it respectfully: “Of course what we do is paramount; that’s where we earn or forfeit trust. But people experience what we do through the lens of what we say, and if they sense a discrepancy between the two, trust suffers. If we’re saying the right things but doing the wrong things, we will end up mistrusted. This is characteristic of ’bad guys’ who try to paper over bad acts with smooth words. But if we’re doing the right things but saying the wrong things, we will also end up mistrusted. This is characteristic of ’good guys’ who undermine trust in their genuinely good behavior by exaggerating their case and denying their opponents’ share of the truth. We can’t assess trust in our organization without assessing how people see both what we do and what we say.”
But even if you succeed in convincing your organization’s “trust team” to pay attention to communication, I think it will still go off-track unless it focuses more on being trustworthy and being accountable, rather than being trusted.