Updated: Jun 26
One of the six components of my trustworthiness model is time. Time is one of the “what you do” group of dynamic components. Time accelerates the impact that the interaction's positivity (or negativity) has on your trustworthiness level. But not all time is equal. You know that it takes time to build trust. You also know that once you lose trust, it is almost impossible (or takes a tremendous amount of time) to rebuild it. You also heard that “nobody gets a second chance to make a first impression.” The first impression plays a special role in building trust, as well. This article will discuss the special role of first impression in building your trustworthiness, explain why it has such a strong impact, explain what happens over time, and give you some advice related to the role that first impression plays in building your trustworthiness.
How does first impression work?
You heard the phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover.” While a great value (focus on substance rather than appearance), our brains are not wired that way. We allow looks and first impressions to affect how we judge others. As a result, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” Accordingly, while time is one of the six components of trustworthiness, not all time is made equal. The first seconds, minutes, and hours in a relationship have a much more significant effect on assessing trustworthiness than later times.
Once, I invited a company to give me a proposal for renovating my pool. The company representative (possibly the owner) showed up at my doorstep driving a Maserati. What does that mean? How did that affect my assessment of him or his business? How would my opinion change if he was driving a Ford F150 truck or an old and beat-up Toyota Corolla?
Malcolm Gladwell wrote about it in Blink, and Daniel Kahneman wrote about it in Thinking Fast and Slow. Others, too, researched and wrote about our subconscious mind that comes into play and affects our decision-making process unconsciously.
Why does first impression have such a strong impact?
We hate uncertainty. Call it a defense mechanism, but we feel we must know enough about the other person before we can trust them. We must possess a level of “knowledge” (or, at least, what we categorize as knowledge) about the other person to feel safe making decisions involving them. If we know less than that, we don’t feel safe.
However, the first time we meet someone, we cannot possibly know enough to feel safe. So, our brain fills the gap as quickly as possible. It does it subconsciously. But it fills the gap with assumptions based on shreds of evidence. Those assumptions are susceptible to being wrong. We see one little thing (the car that the pool renovation company owner drove) and using our experience, as limited as it might be, we deduct assumptions that are not necessarily true. Those assumptions are subject to our past experiences and our confirmation bias, whether we admit having it or not. Based on those assumptions, we decide whether we can trust the other person or not. Based on those assumptions, others decide whether they can trust us or not.
When we start a relationship, the balance between facts and assumptions is heavily skewed toward the side of assumptions. Over time, as we learn more facts about the other person, we can start letting go of our assumptions about them (provided we are not holding on to them too strongly and refuse to replace them with contradictory facts) and replace them with facts. The balance shifts from assumptions to facts and from looks to substance.
What is first impression important for trust?
My trust model has two groups of components: who you are and what you do. The who you are components (competence, personality compatibility, and symmetry) exist before we ever interact with the other person. However, unless we know those components, the starting point of the first interaction (considering you never planned to meet the other person) is zero trust. That level of trust will change through the positivity that the other person will contribute to the interaction and be accelerated by the time and intimacy components.
Since there is not much that you know about the other person before the first interaction with them, time has a much bigger impact in accelerating (really, emphasizing at this point) every little positive or negative contribution they make.
What happens over time?
Over time, as we know more and more about the other person and form our opinion of their trustworthiness, time plays a smaller role in completing the trustworthiness picture we have of them, for better or worse. If our impression is that they should not be trusted, even positive interactions will change this only a little. This is also why it’s so hard to rebuild trust once it’s lost.
If you want to be trusted by someone you are about to meet and have never met before, help them form a positive opinion of you and your trustworthiness before that first meeting starts. Communicate information about who you are (competence, personality compatibility, symmetry), either directly or indirectly, through someone they trust and who knows you, utilizing the Fifth Law of Trust: transferability. Research who they are so you can emphasize things that are important to them and things you have in common with them.
If you know that you are about to meet someone for the first time and that you will have to assess their trustworthiness, do your homework! Learn who they are. Get as much as you can to establish who they are (competence, personality compatibility, symmetry). Ask people you trust and who know them about them. Try to build as much of a foundation of facts about them so you will not have to rely on snap judgment and assumptions your subconscious brain will make about them.
Finally, if another person considers you to be untrustworthy after a long time, know that it will be very hard to change that perception. No matter how hard you try to contribute to every interaction positively, they will remember how you used to be and give little credibility to your efforts. Once you know what you have done wrong that caused you to lose their trust and know how to do better, you should consider changing your environment. Move to another team, another company, another set of friends, and start fresh with actions that will build your trustworthiness in the new setting by people who were never exposed to how you were before and haven’t formed their opinion of your trustworthiness yet.
Listen to the podcast episode: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/s5e1-trust-and-first-impression/id1569249060?i=1000556102212
Dr. Yoram Solomon is a trust expert, author of The Book of Trust, host of The Trust Show podcast, a two-time TEDx speaker, and facilitator of the Trust Habits workshop that helps building trust in organizations.