A class of graduate students were guinea pigs in an unusual experiment during a Psychology lecture last semester.

Their professor asked them to take out their smartphones, unlock them, and pass them to the person sitting nearest. The request prompted a range of reactions, from embarrassed giggles to indignant protest. But all the students, wary perhaps of the impact a refusal might have on their year-end credits, finally complied with the request. The professor then asked them how it felt to have their unlocked devices in somebody else’s hands.

Photo by Unknown (Author), Public Domain CC0 Creative Commons


I feel naked

A commonly expressed sentiment was a feeling of being exposed, naked, or vulnerable. They didn’t like it and would never have done it willingly. As the students also had the other person’s smartphone in their hands, they were immediately able to empathize with the other’s feelings of vulnerability. Many reported sensing the immense burden of responsibility to protect the other’s privacy, so much so, that many did not even dare to look at the screen.

The goal of the experiment was to get the students to palpably experience the sentiment commonly known as trust. By exchanging smartphones with someone else, they were able to experience the exchange both as a trustor, the person handing over the device, and as a trustee, the person charged to treat the other’s confidential data with discretion.

Very quickly it turned out that being trusted had little to do with whether one was intelligent, popular, tech-savvy, well-connected, confident or well-spoken. In short, it did not correlate with other common measures of ‘ability’. Rather, what mattered was the giver’s perception of the receiver’s intentions. The essential question that trustors asked themselves was: “Is this person going to use the information they find on my device in a way that helps me or hurts me?” Only if the trustee’s intentions were perceived as benevolent did trust emerge.


What is trust?

The scientific underpinnings of trust were recently laid bare in a new book that focused on a domain where people feel extremely vulnerable – wealth management.  The authors contend that when people feel vulnerable because, for example, the cost of the product or service is high, they could incur subsequent losses, they will not know how good the product or service really is until long after they have bought it, or the decision cannot be undone, trust becomes a prerequisite to any transaction.

This means that buyers must be convinced not only of sellers’ ability, but also of their motivation to use that ability in the buyers’ interest.  A seller who is not trusted might still win the business on the basis of their product and service qualities alone, but not if those products or services make their clients feel vulnerable.


The most trusted companies in America

One of the most trusted companies on the internet is Amazon.com. Nobody worries about the security of the transactions, the reliability of the delivery, or the returnability of the items while shopping on the platform. This is because the firm goes to visible lengths to address clients’ concerns about these risks and, thereby, wins trust. Indeed, many online service providers, like PayPal and PokerStars recognize the importance of features like secure transactions, and employ measures like two-factor authentication, or RSA Secure Tokens. This is the least one must do, and there is no reason why it should end there.

Photo by Unknown (Author), CC0 Public Domain

The most trusted company in America in 2018, according to Forbes magazine, was the Campbell Soup Company.  Few products are riskier than those we must put into our bodies. So, consumers clearly have no doubts about the firm’s ability to manufacture a quality product – after 150 years, or so, they ought to have gotten it right by now. It is the other things the company does that make it truly trusted, though.


Campbell’s social responsibility, its projects to fight hunger, its determination to make its soups affordable, and its transparency about the product ingredients, are all things that demonstrate to clients that the Campbell Soup Company is also motivated to help them, not hurt them.  This is how to win clients’ trust.