How do we know who to trust?. Image 1.

Laura Yan


How do we know who to trust?. Image 2.

Erin Lux



We’re constantly bombarded with solicitations for personal information, money and loyalty—but how do we know who to give it to? When can we trust people, businesses and websites with time, money and data?

Is trusting a company similar to trusting a human being? What happens when our trust is betrayed? We asked psychologists, academics, and marketing and advertising experts about how and when to trust in a world fraught with breaches in trust and compromised information.



Robin S. Rosenberg

Ph.D., ABPP  clinical psychologist, Assistant Clinical Professor at the University of California, San Francisco

Any given individual has to earn our trust—gradually. In other words, “trust, but verify.” Start out small. Before making yourself too vulnerable with the person, see how trustworthy he or she is in everyday ways: Does he or she seem to really hear you, treat you with respect, not belittle you when you make a mistake? If the answer is yes, then the person may well be worthy of your trust on a deeper level.

But even the most trustworthy person will eventually betray your trust in some way—maybe unintentionally. But the real “test” is how the two of you negotiate and (hopefully) repair that breach of trust. When you tell that person about how you felt betrayed, how does he or she respond? With genuine remorse? A desire to understand and repair it? Or defensively, perhaps attacking you or trying to justify his or her actions? If it's the latter, then maybe he or she isn’t so trustworthy.

Percent of people

who believe that, generally speaking, most people can be trusted:


Baby boomer




Gen X






Douglas Davis

Author of the coming book from HOW Books entitled Creative Strategy and the Business of Design

This is relevant in light of the recent Volkswagen emissions cheating scandal. I think you have to separate the brand from the management in order to look at the real damage and where it was caused.

Volkswagen the brand, as Adweek pointed out, has just " squandered 55 years of great advertising" because of the lies of Volkswagen's management. The legendary Volkswagen ads from DDB literally changed the way advertising was developed and was called the "creative revolution" because the art director and copywriter worked on the ads together. The "Lemon" headline and concept was built on the brand's values of quality and standards so high that a blemish on the bumper had this car rejected by Volkswagen's quality control guys. The "Think Small" headline and concept could differentiate the brand from its Detroit competition by contrasting the beetle with the huge American models, and it was genius because it was true. At least, at the time it was.

So many agencies have contributed to a long line of smart and effective advertising for VW with recent concepts like "The Force," "Safe Happens" and "The 3 old wives" telling tales for their diesel cars (which has since been taken down). These messages built the brand over time and cultivated trust, dependability and good will for Volkswagen--but Volkswagen management changed all that with their lies.

As a result, we are looking at Volkswagen the brand differently, and wondering if we can trust anything they said through their ads over the past 55 years. I'm even wondering if people will believe in brands associated with the Volkswagen umbrella, such as Audi's "Truth in Engineering" tagline and ads or the technology behind Porsche's cars, by association. Berlin Germany's reputation for engineering and efficiency could also be called into question. This is much more serious than just a lie that was exposed.

This scandal made liars out of various agencies that were looking to build their communications on true insights, cast doubt on brands associated with VW and gave German engineering a black eye. Trust that took 55 years to build was washed away because the 500,000 people making decisions on VW cars made them with false information. The brand stands for something only if the management and everyone on down to the janitor shares the same values. If not, it makes everyone out to be liars and transforms proud customers into victims cheated out of their money.

David Ogilvy stated: "The customer is not a moron, she is your wife." It taught many of us to respect the people we sell to. I think customers are rethinking where they decide to spend their money and give their information because time and time again they are treated as morons instead of taken care of. Companies that can live up to what they claim and admit when they are wrong will win and sustain relationships. Only time will tell whether a brand can be trusted.

False advertising scandals and lawsuits

"$13m lawsuit proves Red Bull doesn't give you wings: Caffeinated drinks giant Red Bull GmbH sued for falsely claiming their product "gives you wings" and agrees to pay out $10 to every person who bought the drink since 2002"


“Target Agrees To Pay $3.9M To Settle False-Advertising Lawsuit: The lawsuit alleged that Target charged higher prices than those advertised, misrepresented how much products weighed and failed to ensure that price scanners were accurate, Bay Area prosecutors said.”


"False Advertising Lawsuit Claims This Almond Milk Brand Doesn’t Have Enough Almonds: A false advertising suit claims Almond Breeze is only 2 percent almonds." 


"Lawsuit alleges Welch's Fruit Snacks are more candy than fruit: The company behind Welch’s Fruit Snacks is facing a class action lawsuit that claims the lunchbox and vending machine staple is “no more healthful than candy.”


"‘Natural’ tobacco company faces federal suit for deceptive advertising: The lawsuit... states that "the cigarettes are engineered to deliver a higher level of nicotine, and/or contain additives and flavorings,” and cites an FDA letter to Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company stating that several of the cigarette products manufactured by the company are adulterated."

Capital New York



Neal M. Burns

Ph.D., Professor and Director of the Center For Brand Research, Stan Richards School of Advertising and Public Relations at the University of Texas at Austin

The concept of “trust” is essentially a relationship descriptor. It covers the confidence we have in those from whom we seek medical assistance, the believability we place in the statements offered by our elected political representatives, the advertising and promotional claims of those offering products and services, as well as the acceptance we give to the explanations offered by our children, family and friends concerning their activities.

In the commercial arena we recognize the concept of “brand,” which is generally accepted to mean what the company stands for (its position) as well as a set of service, emotional and other attributes. In both cases, the terms describe our interactions, satisfaction and comfort with the other person, the product or service.

The cultural and value shifts that take place in contemporary society are frequent reminders of the changing nature of trust and the importance of collaboration in the 21st Century. The reinvention of traditional market behaviors—renting, lending, swapping, sharing, bartering, gifting—through technology now takes place in ways and on a scale not possible before the Internet. Within this same time period, the authoritative voice is questioned, challenged, and across large portions of the population  . . . ignored. It is in that way that the selection of a restaurant is more likely driven by a Yelp review—with a nod towards collaborative consumption—than by an award-winning ad for the establishment.

Each of us, as well as products, services and social causes, needs to earn trust and sustain its presence to be successful. Currently, trust and brand dominance in a category is perhaps more the result of Internet publishing and social network chatter than of corporate promotion and advertising. At the corporate level, the transparency and collective evidence of management decisions can, on the one hand, raise the image and desirability of the enterprise, or, on the other hand, reveal such conduct and poor judgment that damages the brand. The more recent gross product misrepresentations of Volkswagen is a case that quickly come to mind.

2015 has produced excellent examples of successful trust enhancement, as well as cases in which confidence in managerial judgment, behavior and honesty have decreased. The ease with which publishing on the Internet takes place has contributed greater transparency to both interpersonal and corporate behavior. Elected representatives and public figures have, in some cases, lost the trust of the general population and major corporations have incurred serious damage to their brand.




Peter Yeh

Senior Systems Administrator

These days, companies try to be personable. Zizek calls it: "Capitalism with a human face." Look at how much marketers talk about brand engagement. But corporate personhood extends in a way that's very much like a real person. We can never fundamentally grasp the unfathomable depth of the Other. You can never trust anyone.

For more practical advice, keep an eye out in your browser bar for HTTPS. Each browser looks different when they're showing a secure connection, but it's usually some variation on a lock. If a site doesn't encrypt traffic for its payment or login page, then find somewhere else to go.

If they're not a major retailer—I know Target isn't exactly a good example—and they aren't using Paypal, Amazon Payments, or some other large payment processor for handling credit cards, they might be handling it themselves, and that's not good. Buy it somewhere else. If you want to be ultraparanoid, you can buy a rechargeable debit card from Duane Reade to use online.

Be aware of corpspeak and vague statements. In their security disclosure or section they should mention specifics, not vague absolutes. Certain keywords to look out for are "military grade," "used by banks," and "impenetrable." If it sounds like they're promising everything, they probably can't deliver.

With enough effort, everything can be hacked. Security is not a product you can buy, some code you can make, or a set of iron clad instructions, but a process. Our behaviors conspire against each other, and the process of security is an ever-evolving one. This is just something we should be aware of and accept. There is no perfect security, and there never was.

When you use an ATM at a bar, someone might have inserted a paperthin skimmer into the machine and set up a fake fire alarm with a webcam to snap your PIN. The restaurant you went to may have a counterfeit card reader and an employee is now getting a kickback for each card he copies.

The system should have ways to compensate for this. Credit cards are a good example, they're stolen all the time, but your bank should be able to detect it. You get a call, you deny the charges, they issue you a new card. Check your credit reports and statements often, never reply to unsolicited calls, emails, or texts with personal information, and only ever use the number your bank gives you.

I'm sorry I do not have any good news for you.

Notable recent
hacking attacks 

 "Hacking Team" Data Breach: 400 gigabytes of internal sensitive data exposed when a controversial spyware company was attacked by anonymous hackers

Ashley Madison Data Breach: online portal for extramarital affairs was hacked by "The Impact Team" which exposed 10GB of personal data of tens of millions of site customers and 20GB of company's internal data.

The Sony Pictures Hack: a massive cyber attack on Sony Pictures last year by the Guardians of Peace (GOP), exposing 200 gigabytes of confidential Sony Pictures data like movie scripts, emails and phone numbers of celebrities.

"The Fappening": Unknown hacker broke into third-party applications connected to services like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Apple’s iCloud releasing nude images of celebrities.

"The Snappening": more than 100,000 nude videos and images of the Snapchat users were hacked.

Hacker News, more



John Murphy

Professor of the Stan Richards School of Advertising & PR, University of Texas at Austin

Brands earn consumers' trust in the marketplace by providing consistent value over time. Trust is earned in a competitive environment where consumers continually make cost/benefit assessments. To earn the consumer's trust, the brand must deliver consistent value supported by all aspects of the consumer's relationship with the brand.




Dr. Lisa Firestone

Senior Editor at, Director of Research and Education at The Glendon Association

The most egregious human rights violation to commonly occur in close relationships is driving your partner crazy by messing with their sense of reality. That is why it is so important to be honest and trustworthy in our relationships, so we can respect ourselves and treat our loved ones with the same respect. When it comes to how we relate to our partner, it’s better to be vulnerable and trusting, because we are more likely to get what we want. We are more likely to bring out the best in our partner, who may be inspired to live up to our trust.

Though it may not feel like it at times, there is actually more safety in being vulnerable and trusting in our interpersonal relationships. It encourages an environment of honesty and openness, and it helps us to not act on our own fears of intimacy. It’s important to be aware that when romantic partners challenge us by loving us and breaking our negative self-image, we can become untrusting rather than taking in this new view. We may even get suspicious and end up driving our partner away.  

Instead of bending ourselves out of shape by becoming overly critical or paranoid, we can recognize that people are flawed and see things through the filter of their own history and experience. Some people have trouble with their reality testing—their memory or prior experiences— which render them less trustworthy. Many people see the world through the filter of what’s referred to as the “critical inner voice,” a negative internal thought process that criticizes and coaches us in destructive ways. They also have psychological defenses they’ve built based on hurtful past experiences that cause them to act out in ways that can push away love or be harmful to their relationships.

The more defended and damaged an individual is based on the degree of trauma and frustration in their early life, the less trustworthy they're likely to be in their adult relationships. The more open and in touch with their feelings people are, and the more they’ve made sense of these past experiences, the more trustworthy they will be.

In relationships, our aim should be to have compassion for each other, to believe in each other, and to bring out the best in each other, while creating an open, honest and safe environment. While we should never accept abuse or fool ourselves by engaging in a fantasy, we should strive to be vulnerable and trust the people we love and believe in.

Trusting a company or business is completely different, because there is a profit motive; they want to sell you something. Still, being suspicious or paranoid to an extreme is probably not worth it, as it contributes to you feeling terrible. It is important to be diligent in developing our own judgement of the trustworthiness of organizations, companies and businesses. This might include research, asking others about their experiences, or interacting with them. Both the context and the culture of these entities will matter in assessing their trustworthiness.