Trust: Sizing Up What You Know


Relationships are tricky and getting trickier. Trust is built on familiarity, which feeds our need for control and predictability in our relationships. But as our society and relationships become more complex, it’s becoming hard to measure how accurately you know someone – is your sense of familiarity just a ruse? As my clients will tell you, I often bring these complicated relationship questions back to the fact that we’re basically primates and tribal. We size people up based on rudimentary cognitive shortcuts, heuristics that help us deal with the enormous amounts of social information we process on a daily basis.

These shortcuts were more useful when we lived in small groups of people that looked, dressed, and spoke like us. Fast forward to a modern metropolitan city and the heuristics fail big time. You can’t judge a book by its cover and that can be nerve-wracking.

Example: You start a new job and are instantly comfortable around a team member who is always well dressed, smiling, and confident. He gets tasked with leading a new project and assigns you an odd task. You do it because you sense you can trust him, but the project ends up failing miserably – where did you go wrong?

Here are the two primary reasons our strategies are ineffective:

1. We don’t know our own cognitive shortcuts. You absolutely must figure out what values and preconceptions you have around – at minimum - the following areas: social class (rich vs. poor people), gender, and race. If you’re spending less time scrutinizing what someone says because they look like you or remind you of yourself, you’re in danger of being duped by familiarity.

2. We’re responding to hunches versus observable evidence. Hunches rarely hold water. If you’re not sure why you trust someone, it might be worth connecting that feeling to observable evidence or data: what have you seen in that person’s actions that makes you think they actually should be trusted?

Bottom Line: Our cognitive shortcuts are adaptive but many times off the mark. Whether you’re sizing up how well you actually know someone, make sure to identify concrete facts that support your assessment. You can’t do this with everyone you interact with but it’s worth practicing with those closest to you.

If you want to get in the habit of assessing the validity of your thoughts or don’t want to make investments in the wrong person again, let’s talk about learning new skills that will help.


Follow me on Twitter (@GregMatos) and then stay tuned for the next installation of this series about maximizing trust and empathy in your relationships and business. Miss the first one? Check it out!