in Life Optimization

Credibility is A Bad Way to Measure Trust

Surf the internet long enough and you’ll start to notice some patterns. One of the big ones is the press banner. Most websites trying to sell you something put their’s front and center, from personal blogs, to ecommerce stores, to startups.

Look, we were featured on Forbes, the New York Times, CNN, and David Letterman! Obama tweeted us once! Abraham Lincoln was our biggest fan! It’s become such a cliche that StartupLegitimizer will auto-generate a press banner for you, ‘for instant legitimacy’ (see above).

Credibility is Ossified Trust

Why do this? One word – credibility. Press banners, testimonials, name dropping, and any other kind of recognition on the web serve one purpose – convincing you that the personality is credible. You can trust them, because [insert respected name here] trusts them, or at least worked with them once.

Someone toiled for years to make the New York Times a trusted purveyor of quality information, and eventually, it had consistent quality long enough to make the brand itself trustworthy. Therefore, when it features someone, that trust rubs off.

In this case, trust is defined as confidence that they deliver what they promise. In other words, they do what they say they do. They have integrity. An integrous entity is one that is trustable. You don’t care that it was featured in the NYT, you care if it does as advertised, and you trust the NYT to only feature things that do as advertised.

And yet, this trust was transferred from one entity to another, so is it still authentic?

Ossified Trust Isn’t Authentic

It seems that all credibility benchmarks fail to truly capture trust. Press coverage is a terrible way to do it – the news is a hype machine that jumps on anything that elicits a response. Expert endorsements are equally sketchy – just because someone is an expert in X doesn’t mean you can trust them with Y.

It’s kind of like hiring – you don’t really care about qualifications, you care about their skills. You want them to be able to do the job, and the only way to know that short of making them do the job is to look at similar jobs they’ve done in the past. Qualifications don’t fully capture skills – people can look good on paper but terrible in reality, or terrible on paper but great in real life.

Likewise, as a startup marketer I see a lot of ‘vanity metrics’ – numbers that sound good but don’t convey much, like messages sent, total downloads, or (heh) press coverage. The only real number that matters is how many of your users keep coming back – user retention. If they come back day after day, it shows trust. You delivered on your value proposition before, and they trust you to do it again.

The only credibility benchmarks that really work are testimonials from someone who has dealt directly with the person in the way that you plan to deal with them. Banks look for good credit scores since they’re giving you a loan. Landlords look for past landlord references. Consultants look for past clients, to see if the freelancer leaves behind happy customers.

Can We Transfer Trust Without Credibility?

So we know that the only way to establish trust is through transferring it from an existing trust source. Companies do this too – it’s why they pay employees referral bonuses, as it’s easier to extend their trust of the employee’s capability than start from zero on a cold applicant. It why it’s easier to hit on girls at house parties than at bars – in the former you both theoretically trust the host, but in the latter any weirdo can walk into a bar. Even better, get introduced by a friend (that’s how most Americans met their significant other)!

How, then, could we establish trust at first contact without using an existing entity? Is it possible to trust someone immediately, without credibility indicators?

Anecdotally, it would appear so, given the existence of ‘love at first sight’ and ‘it just seemed right’ stories you hear all over. Personally, I decided to share a room with a guy who I has only spent about 40 minutes with beforehand, and everything is great for us, 8 months later. Somehow my intuition was right on that one, but what is it reading?

Trust Yourself, Over Other Sources

My guess: it’s reading integrity, just like in the professional sense. Professionally, your product/service does as advertised. Personally, you do what you’ll say you do. Therefore, to trust a stranger, they would have to act according to your principles.

You could sense their principles in a thousand little ways. The way they carry themselves, the clothes they wear, the people they associate with, what they talk about. If any of that pattern matches to people who you’ve already trusted, then it’s likely you can trust this person too.

In a way, we’re back where we started, because now we are pattern matching strangers to existing sources of trust, rather than transferring it directly. What’s the difference between me trusting a guy because Tony Robbins approves of him, vs me trusting him because he reminds me of Tony Robbins? Not much, except now it’s me making the call, rather than Tony. And I know my own sense of trust better than I know Tonys.

If nothing else, this allows us to value our own trust over outside source, which is a good thing. Rather than placing our faith in false idols, we place it in ourselves, and evaluate each new entity on its own merits. In this way, credibility is circumvented, directly back to trust. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than a press banner.

You just have to have a better bullshit detector than the New York Times. Isn’t that something we should all be striving for?