“I trust you.”
Words that we speak or think all too often when dealing with potentially-untrustworthy others:
- Financial advisors
- Building contractors
- Auto mechanics
And we trust more when we are not experts on a subject. In fact, we are sometimes so clueless on a topic that we should be under a restraining order that prevents us from trusting anyone who talks to us about it.
But we do. We trust. Over and over again, disappointment after disappointment.
In fact, the more disappointed we are, the more we want to trust the next “expert” who promises to take care of us.
What kind of brainwashing is going on here? And how can we “trust proof” ourselves when results really matter?
Please, take advantage of me. I trust you.
I was young and poor and my wife and I were just starting out. I was desperate to stretch the money I was making and, if possible, somehow add to it.
I found a series of books written by a guru about financial self-defense. I’ve always been a sucker for the line of thinking that goes:
“If you just learn enough about something, you are certain to be successful at it.”
I was certain that learning more about money would lead to having more money. Lots of it.
I paid for a $300 membership. This was a huge commitment (in late 1980’s dollars) given our precarious financial position and I was filled with trepidation. I shouldn’t have worried; the salesperson, a pleasant female voice on the phone with a British accent, was there to build up my trust. I still cringe when I think of how good I felt when she heartily congratulated me on making such a great decision:
“Good show, Scott! Well done. Very well done.”
I knew I was being manipulated, but it didn’t matter. I felt super smart, so much more intelligent than other people who couldn’t see the truth about self-defending their finances.
Within a couple of months I received an invitation to attend an exclusive, members only seminar for even more information. I was honored. I made the two-hour drive, listening to the guru’s motivational tapes the entire way. I expectantly joined other hopefuls, all of us toting our books and brandishing pencils for taking notes.
I then sat through a two hour, high pressure sales pitch delivered by a silver-haired, smooth-talking huckster in an expensive suit. The goal? To get everyone to invest all our savings with them that very day. To trust them. Many people flocked to the signup table to do just that.
Fortunately, having no spare money lying about, I had a natural immunity to this snake oil. But as I drove home, disappointed at the hard sell, I still wanted to believe.
Over time, I’ve developed into a skeptical, “dive into the details” type of person – especially before spending money – but even today I still feel the pull of people taking advantage of my trust.
The abuse of trust: from minor to criminal
The abuse of trust that I suffered was minor. And there are plenty of over-trusting situations that are “recoverable errors”: even if you misplace your trust in your kitchen remodel contractor and overspend by a few thousand dollars, it’s not the end of the world. It’s just a lesson learned to apply in the future.
Sometimes, however, we over-trust about more important things than kitchen counters. How many people have donated major portions of their lives to disappointing – if not destructive – companies, religions, or even social clubs?
But even serious hijacking of our trust is not criminal, just extremely regretful. What’s criminal is predatory trust-violators who prey on the insecurity and decreased cognition of elderly people to drain them of their financial resources.
And misplaced trust is the root of the problem.
The backward logic of trust
Here’s what is totally backwards about trust:
- The less we understand about a situation, the more we trust.
- The more we understand about a situation, the less we trust.
You are totally into computers, so you spend three weeks researching a laptop before buying. You can’t believe it when your sister buys the first laptop she sees at the office store that is on sale. You make fun of her when it breaks two months later.
Your sister is totally into dogs and knows everything there is to know about dozens of breeds. She takes three months to find exactly the right one to match her family’s needs. She can’t believe it when you by the first dog that jumps up on you at the rescue shelter. She gives you the “I told you so” routine when it destroys your house and yard.
And on and on. The more we know about something based on our experience, the more detailed we are in our examination of whether or not to make a commitment. The less we know about something, the more we simply want to trust somebody else to take care of us, or rely on our own gut instinct to carry us through.
Of course, this is the opposite of what we should do. And it isn’t made any easier by the fact that we trust all day long without bad consequences. In fact, every day, trust usually works out very well for us.
The world runs on trust
Trust is simply the most efficient way to get stuff done without endless checking.
Everyday trust is never a big deal:
- We trust that restaurants will serve us food that hasn’t been contaminated by the kitchen staff.
- We trust that prescription drugs contain exactly the chemicals they are supposed to contain.
- We trust that other drivers will stop at the stop sign.
Why? Because that’s how it nearly always works. There’s a pattern and we’ve come to rely on it. We trust it.
Our trust is almost always well-founded for all kinds of ordinary things. But that sets us up for misplaced trust when we encounter not-so-ordinary things.
The roots of instinctive trust
Our tribal ancestors lived in a scary, dangerous world where anything unknown was potentially life-threatening. But daily activities still had to take place, so it was a world that was also built on tribal trust.
There are two broad types of trust that applied in the prehistoric world and still apply now. Here’s the first one:
Trust Category 1: What we can directly perceive with our own senses
The first type of trust is easy to understand. After experiencing something once or twice, we can trust that the experience will never change. E.g. fire will burn you every time you touch it.
When we can rely on our five senses, we are on solid footing regarding our personal safety; if it looks and feels safe, it’s probably safe.
But we are lost when our senses can’t help us out, when we need information about things that we can’t directly perceive, that are outside our circle of easily-observable phenomena. Then, we have to fall back on the second type of trust.
Trust Category 2: What we have to rely on others to tell us
Yep… we have to trust others when we are dumb about the details of a situation. When, for example, we need to know what’s on the other side of the mountain and have never been there.
In the tribal world, it was a great shortcut to simply take everything that was said to you at face value. If someone said it, it was very like the truth, or close enough to it. In the small world of a tribe, any falsehood would be quickly found out and punished by shunning, expulsion, or worse.
Being overly suspicious of your fellow tribe members was not a survival characteristic. This built-in assumption that others are telling us the truth led to the development of the modern human: homo sapiens trusticanus.
Trusting others is thoroughly baked into our genes as a survival advantage… an “advantage,” like consuming every bit of food we can get our hands on, that is often out of sync with the modern world.
So even though we all – yes, even you and me – constantly shade the truth and even outright lie to others in ways small and large, we are evolved to take any statement made to our faces by someone else as truth. We feel like we are disrespecting someone if we insist on verifying their claims.
Why? Tribal unity.
Instinctive trust is so strong that we still practice it after we have been disappointed. After all, someone wouldn’t lie twice, would they?
The trust circle forms
So we slowly create a “trust circle.” People who are inside of our circle, we trust. People who are outside of our circle – those dreaded others we’ve been warned about since the dawn of time – we don’t trust.
This works pretty well in the caveman world, but there is a major flaw: once someone is inside our trust circle, we trust them implicitly. We stop doubting them and don’t verify what they say.We trust those who are in our family or tribe. We don’t trust those who aren’t. It’s the way our caveman brains work. Click To Tweet
That trust circle looks pretty solid, doesn’t it? So we must be well-protected. Well… no. Humans are very lazy by nature, so we are always coming up with shortcuts for everything, including who to admit inside our trust circle. For example:
- If you look like me, I instinctively trust you.
- If you don’t look like me, I instinctively don’t trust you.
This is the basis for all kinds of prejudice, from unfair jury verdicts to outright racism. It all comes down to a trust (or mistrust) shortcut. This example, and any others you can think of, can just as easily be stated:
- If you are a member of my tribe, I instinctively trust you
If you are not a member of my tribe, I instinctively don’t trust you.
“Tribe” being whatever group we decide we are part of. The difference between groups is often trivial.
Again, worked fine 100,000 years ago. Now? Not so much. Because when someone is determined to be “in our tribe,” they get full access, no further questions asked.
So our modern trust circles are weak in many areas, allowing easy admission because there is too much to know in the modern world.
So, the first step in avoiding a trust catastrophe is to understand where your circle is weak.
What are your trust circle weak spots?
Rule of thumb: the less you know, the weaker your trust circle.
Don’t be too proud to admit you have weak spots. Here are personal weak spots I have battled with:
- Desire to beef up like a bodybuilder through finding the perfect, fast-results workout
- Desire to lose weight through finding the fastest cutting diet
- Desire to make some extra money fast through sure-fire online business schemes
See a pattern?My biggest personal weak spots grow from my hopes and dreams of a better life. So do yours. Click To Tweet
Personal hopes and dreams create the most glaring weak spots in our trust circles, but there are plenty more. Essentially, as stated earlier, the less we know about something the more likely we have a weak spot.
These gaps and weak spots are the entryways for trust-creators, both good and bad.
Earning trust, faking trust
There are two types of trust creators:
1. Those who are actually trustworthy – they earn our trust.
2. Those who know all the ways to act trustworthy – they fake it and we often buy it.
It would be helpful to picture your trust circle as a biological cell in your body. Some visitors, such as amino acids (proteins), arrive at the cell wall with proper identification. They can produce their bona fides to prove they are on official business before being admitted (i.e. trusted).
Other visitors are viruses. They present a fake ID, tell just enough of a lie about their purpose to get the cell to drop its guard a bit, then rush in and take over, turning the cell’s processes against itself.
Protein = Experienced dietician to whom you were referred by your family doctor, who promises to help you lose 20 pounds gradually over the course of a year. You are wary at first, but as results slowly begin to accumulate, you become a believer.
Virus = Online $650 juice cleanse program that promises you’ll lose 20 pounds in two weeks. “Maybe this time that could work,” you think, “and I do have that class reunion at the end of the month…” Bam! Virus is inside the wall, sucking the energy (money) out of the cell and forcing the nucleus to produce more viruses that can go to work on your other insecurities, such as your not-perfectly-white teeth.
Enough with the ancient history lessons and microbiology analogies! Our purpose here is to figure out how to beef up your trust circle and help you make better decisions on things that really impact your life.
Allow me to introduce Eduardo. He’ll be helping us make our way through this process.
Case Study: Eduardo and his weak spots
Eduardo is a typical adult:
He’s super smart in some areas, such as his expertise in golf course turf. If you want to know something even vaguely related to the care and maintenance of a golf course, Eduardo is capable of boring you to tears with technical explanations. 1
He’s moderately smart in many areas, such as raising kids, keeping his motorcycle serviced, staying in decent shape, and how to fold origami frogs. (Hey, we all have some wild card skills.)
He’s utterly clueless in a few areas, including managing his money. He can generally avoid overdraft fees on his checking account and occasionally gets his credit cards almost paid off, but navigating money and financial planning is like stumbling through fog for him.
Note: Always click on these → 2 for additional, slightly off topic but still interesting stuff. Go ahead, try it.
Here’s Eduardo’s trust circle:
We’ll be checking in with him a few times over the course of our journey.
Protecting your weak spots
Let’s look closely at a healthy trust circle in the modern world. It should actually be three circles:
A person must get through all three before fully entering our trust circle. The first two can be faked, the last can’t. We’ll cover the “trust vault” later.
Let’s explore each ring in the circle… how fakers break through, and how trustworthy people earn their way through.
THE OUTER RING OF TRUST: SURFACE INDICATORS
It’s not difficult for people to create signals that indicate trustworthiness. Easy or not, these signals are still an important first step in narrowing down our choices of experts.
Faking trust signals
The outer ring of our trust circle is the easiest to breach because it’s so easy to fake the surface stuff:
- Clean office
- Nice company vehicle
- Professional website
- Good reviews
These items mean something… or they mean nothing. It’s tricky, because the opposite…
- Filthy office
- Sloppy vehicle
- Confusing website
- Terrible reviews
… makes us think, “If they are so inept that they can’t even get the basics right, I can’t expect them to get anything else right, either. I can’t trust them to take care of me.”
But the opposite of “inept” is not automatically “trustworthy.” We have to dig deeper to consider the intent of the appearance.
Regardless of the dangers of relying on these trust signals, they are the first step in vetting someone. The simple truth is that reliable professionals surround themselves with indicators of being reliable. Indicators that… well… indicate that they are:
- Informative and willing to educate
- Open to customers reviewing them, both good and bad
Pretty common sense, I know. The issue is that unwise people look at these surface indicators and open their trust circle all the way. My readers are not unwise! For the wise, these signals are just the first step in checking out someone’s claims.
Case study: Eduardo needs an expert
Eduardo has decided to get serious about his awful finances – the constant stress of not knowing exactly where he stands at any given time with his money is killing him. He hates opening his credit card bills. The whole thing is ruining his peace of mind every day.
Kudos to Eduardo: he has acknowledged that he needs an expert and doesn’t want to just muddle through any more.
Beginning his search
Eduardo is embarrassed to tell anyone about his financial issues so he gets no recommendations. He reads three article online about how to find and work with a financial advisor. He decides that a good trust indicator is whether they have earned the Certified Financial Planner® (CFP) designation.
He searches for local advisors and finds five who are CFP’s (he confirms their designations on the CFP national website). All five have websites, but one site is clunky and doesn’t work well on mobile. One site is obviously out of date. The remaining three are all informative and two even have regularly updated blogs.
He emails all three. One never responds but two get right back to him and are granted outer ring access to his trust circle.
Video: Why are we so fooled by appearances?
6 minutes, 39 seconds | subtitles available
THE MIDDLE RING OF TRUST: UNCOVERING CHAMELEONS
It’s harder to fake the credentials that are necessary to breach this ring. But… not really that hard for a person who is used to doing it. Your vigilance must increase proportionately.
Trust indicators such as nice websites are one thing, but trust chameleons are something else entirely. These people make us trust them because, like a chameleon, they take on the color of their surroundings in order to appear as if they are one of us.
We already know two things:
1. We tend to trust people who are like us automatically – those who appear to be members of our tribe.
2. The more we want something to be true, the more of a sucker we are for a trust chameleon.
It’s not just physical appearance, either. A skilled trust chameleon will give you hints of similarity in their tone of voice and the statements they make about everyday things. And most of all, they will appear to be in your tribe by employing the strongest trust indicator of all: they’ll pay attention to you.
It’s basic sales training: give people attention, be extremely likeable. It’s not even necessary to get sales training for this; it’s common sense. It’s just how you treat customers, whether you are a jewelry salesperson or a grocery bagger.
We know instinctively that people like to be listened to because we like to be listened to. We aren’t good listeners most of the time because we are constantly looking for opportunities to talk about ourselves, but when we are in a sales position and motivated by money, we are all ears.Half of sales come from (often lonely) people wanting attention so much they'll pay for it. Click To Tweet
Just think of the attentive waiter complimenting your excellent choice of entrée (which they recommended) when in reality no one in the world should care what you eat for dinner… unless they are being paid to care.
Sorting trust chameleons
Everyone who is selling will be chameleon-like to a certain extent. It’s how we are socialized to act when we want something from someone else. We try to get them to like us:
- A salesperson wants your money.
- You want to borrow your brother-in-law’s truck to move your couch.
- Your spouse wants a favorite, family-secret recipe from nana.
“You catch more flies with honey than vinegar,” and all that. It’s common sense. 4
So how do you sort them out? How do you decide a salesperson or other professional can be trusted? Well… consider that there is something besides honey that attract flies like crazy. You mainly have to ask yourself whether someone is giving some honey, with its expected-but-not-unpleasant load of salesperson sweetness, or if you are being fed bullshit with maybe a little honey drizzled over it.
Honey is actually good for you in small doses, or at least not poisonous. The other stuff… not fit for consumption.
- Is the sales pitch filled with stuff that is actually good for you to know, or empty promises?
- Can you actually see the work they have done in the past, not just hear their description of it?
Let’s check in with Eduardo again to see how he handles this.
Case study: Eduardo finds his likely expert
Eduardo sets an appointment to meet with each of the two financial advisors who responded to him. He’s cautious; he doesn’t want to just dump a box of receipts and old tax returns on their desks and whimper “Save me!” He wants to be in control of the relationship.
To prepare, he takes a few minute to write down all of his questions. He’s going to treat this like a job interview, rather than passively listening to a sales pitch. It’s not that hard to come up with a list of good questions:
- How long will it take to have a plan in place?
- What records are needed up front? On a regular basis?
- How much will this cost?
- How will we keep track of whether my finances are getting better?
- Three clients I can talk to about your results?
And the big one:
- How do you get paid?
The answers to these questions will give Eduardo the information he needs to decide on his advisor based on more than who is the cheapest provider.
Eduardo asks the same questions of each advisor. The first one is very professional and easy to talk to and Eduardo is tempted to cancel the second appointment to save time, but he sticks with his plan. That’s fortunate, because the second advisor identifies a sticky tax situation that Eduardo hadn’t even considered.
And the answer to the big question of how they get paid? After an up-front analysis fee, the first advisor takes a percentage of the money that Eduardo trusts him to manage each year – it’s built right into the accounts that he’ll move all the money to.
The second advisor is paid a flat hourly rate, no matter what he does or how much Eduardo earns (or loses). Since he doesn’t get a percentage of anything, he’ll help Eduardo decide where to put his money, but won’t manage those accounts directly.
Value vs. Cost
Eduardo is drawn to the second advisor, the one who caught the tax issue. But here’s his hang up: it’s money up front, painful payments made every time the advisor does any work. Much less painful to have the first advisor just skim some money each month over time.
What would you do? At this point, most people would say, “sign me up” to the first person, and to themselves they’d say:
“At least I have someone who’ll take care of me. Now I can quit worrying about and just do what I’m told.”
But you? Readers of this website know that I can’t let you get away with that. When your instinct says one option is better than the other, even if it feels more expensive, then what’s my advice?
THE INNER RING OF TRUST: TRIAL BY EXPERIENCE
Here’s the thing about the inner ring of trust: most people don’t have one.
If everything looks good and a (supposed) expert says the right stuff, the vast majority of people are totally on board. They’re pulling out their wallets, ready to just be done with the mental agony of dealing with it and relieved to have someone else taking care of them, finally.
Wise people – like you – are just issuing a visitor’s badge with temporary inner ring access from your trust vault.
Unlocking your trust vault
At this point you’re thinking, “Wow, dude, untrusting much?” No, I’m just a cautious guy, especially when it comes to my money. The more money involved, the more cautious I am. So here’s the thing:
NO ONE should ever get permanent access to the inner ring of a trust circle.
EVERYONE must constantly demonstrate that they are earning trust or out they go.
So inside the inner ring of trust is a vault with access badges.
The vault has a brain lock on it, not a heart lock. 5 Meaning, you open it only when you’ve put thought into the decision and put someone to the initial tests above.
Just like an access badge at a highly-secure government facility, if an expert’s clearance goes bad, they leave the premises immediately. And the badge stays with us.
Case study: Eduardo test drives his expert
Eduardo decides how much money he’s willing to spend to validate his decision to go with the hourly-fee advisor. He decides that he’s willing to spend $750. It’s like setting a check-in point, a “stop and consider what I’ve learned” point.
$750 is enough money for the initial financial evaluation and a few follow-up meetings. It will be $750 worth of experience, after which Eduardo will know for certain if he’s made the right decision or if he needs to start over. He is, in essence, issuing the chosen advisor a temporary visitor access badge.
Do you see what Eduardo has accomplished?
It’s huge, so I don’t want you to miss it:
Eduardo could have spent nothing up front, handed all of finances over to the “skim off the top” advisor, then spent the next several years – or the rest of his life – wondering if he’s being taken care of or taken advantage of. But no matter what doubts he might have, he’d be hesitant to untangle all of the accounts that have become tied up in the plan in order to start over.
Instead, he’s come to terms with a solid number ($750) that he’ll invest in determining for certain if an advisor is right for him. No lifetime of worry needed. And if Eduardo decides this advisor is not for him, he’ll still have learned a ton about financial planning and will make an even better decision next time. So the money will not really be “lost” at all, no matter what happens.
On the value of “wasting money”
People get so freaked out about losing money. They are consumed with avoiding the regret of making imperfect decisions. I say it’s much better to risk losing some money in order to gain more knowledge.
Nothing teaches like experience, like being able to say:
“I’ve done that / been there / experienced it and I can tell you all about it based on first-hand knowledge.”
Until you’ve experienced something, you are just guessing and hoping. After, you are making decisions based on solid evidence.
It’s OK to end up spending money unwisely to learn who you can trust. Don’t regret it and don’t be so hard on yourself. During the course of a life, you can expect to “waste” tens of thousands of dollars making mistakes, many of them based on over-trusting.
It’s the “cost of doing business” as they say… the business of life. The only alternative is to never risk any money at all, and therefore make no progress at all.
If an advisor can’t prove her value and inspire trust within $750, then more money won’t fix that and it’s time to move on.
We’re going to let Eduardo carry on with his life, knowing that he’s all set to get his financial affairs in order. At his $750 milestone, he can yank back the trust access badge and start over or extend it for some more time…but never make it permanent.
The trust process works for anything
I’ve focused on a financial advisor, but this process can work for anything:
Have the remodeling contractor do a small job on your guest bathroom before turning him loose on upgrading your kitchen. Let him prove that he’s punctual and professional before he causes you to eat out take-out pizza for six months after ripping out your appliances then avoiding your phone calls.
Let your local mechanic do all of your oil changes and regular maintenance – even though he’s a little more expensive than the quick lube place – so you know you can trust him when your engine starts smoking. That’s much better than having to call around in a panic and trust the first mechanic you can get on the phone.Spend up front to know you can trust someone before putting yourself at their mercy in a crisis. Click To Tweet
Our trusting natures
In one sense, it’s a beautiful thing that humans are natural-born trusting individuals.
In another sense, it’s our universal fatal flaw, dooming many of us to be taken advantage of more than a few times during our lives.
When can we trust our trusting natures? Well… I seem to have arrived at the conclusion that the answer is “never trust your instincts because they are probably leading you astray.” Which is not exactly wrong, but not the best interpretation, either.
It’s more like this:
So 90% of the time, everyone gets the benefit of the doubt. If they disappoint, reset and proceed with the same attitude with the next person. Life lesson learned and all that.
But for that other 10%… fortify the circles, lock the safe and fall back on the unofficial Missouri state motto: “show me.”
And there’s still no special on (stinky) fish today.
Until next time… remember: Think about it. A lot. Then do something.