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The Trust Experiment

We’ve entered an era in which trust building is paramount for brands – but what exactly is trust and why is it so important?

Words: Malcolm Triggs Illustration: Eric Campbell

I’ve got carotene-induced night vision, curly hair as a result of eating crusts and a phobia of pulling faces in case the wind should suddenly change. What am I?

I am a child who has implicitly trusted my parents.

It’s just as well that as we grow up we eventually learn the reality behind the lies we are told as children – and their inherent whiteness. But what if the implicit trust we exhibited back then actually lasted into adulthood? Surely we’d trust taxi drivers to take the most efficient routes, baggage handlers to treat our suitcases with care and sellers of second-hand items to act in good faith. We’d trust utility providers to give us the best deals, car manufacturers to be honest about their emissions and banks to look after our savings. We’d even accept all news as truth, willingly consent to apparently legitimate data use and have unwavering faith in the promises our politicians make. Just imagine.

Perhaps, deep down, we never entirely lose touch with our naïve inclination to trust anyone and anything. As children, we are fed white lies for our own good, and trust in them because we know no better. As adults, we routinely put our trust on the line even when we know better. The taxi driver has a bad rating but still gets your custom. The bank is taking risks on your behalf but still gets your investment. The politician has made contradictory claims but still gets your vote. We are, contrary to classic economic theory, utterly irrational beings.


The reality is that trust – or at least some base level of trust – is necessary for economic growth. If we were required to litigate during every single transaction or decision we ever made, the entire system would quickly come to a screeching halt. Trust is a lubricant of social interaction, and we use it to get things done.

Nowhere is the need more apparent than in the sharing economy – which is often, and appropriately, referred to as the trust economy. We sleep in the beds of strangers, ride in the cars of people we’ve never met and lend money to people on the other side of the world using new-fangled digital currencies that we might not fully understand. For many, this economy is the future. It’s how we’ll work, how we’ll travel and how we’ll live.

And yet, for a phenomenon regarded as a potential tenet of the future, we know surprisingly little about trust. It’s too messy, too subjective for accurate measurement. Besides, with an estimated value of £190 billion, isn’t the trust economy doing just fine for itself, without the need for a proper qualitative analysis of trust itself?

“Cracks are showing in the ‘promised’ trust economy. And why? The reason is simple: we can’t be trusted.”

The devil is in the detail. In fact, it’s sometimes in the mainstream media. Uber has been plagued by sexual assault claims levelled against its drivers. Money launderers have capitalised on the semi-anonymous and decentralised nature of cryptocurrencies since they were introduced. Even a simple, well-meaning venture such as dockless bicycle sharing has resulted in piles of discarded bicycles littering city streets. In other words, cracks are showing in the ‘promised’ trust economy. And why? The reason is simple: we can’t be trusted.

A paradox, then. We have a tendency to trust people and yet we ourselves aren’t always worthy of trust. Rachel Botsman, the author of the book The Rise Of Collaborative Consumption told the publication Fast Company that we’re experiencing ‘a seismic shift from individual getting and spending towards a rediscovery of collective good’. The Independent, however, reported that we’re not actually hardwired to care about this collective good; rather, what we care about is maximising our own resources.

“We want a cheap holiday and are willing to throw caution to the wind. While we’re away, we don’t want our apartment to sit empty when we could be using it to foot the bill of said holiday. We want a car to pick us up and take us home. Getting a cheap ride is more important that knowing that our driver is safe, reliable and honest.”

Can this be true? Are we really primarily driven – like good little rational beings – by maximising our own resources after all?


I decided to take matters into my own hands and run an internal experiment known as the ‘trust game’. One player – referred to as the ‘trustor’ – is given a set amount of money and the opportunity to either invest or not invest in an project, which is administered by the other player, who is referred to as the ‘trustee’. Any investment made by the trustee is trebled. However, the trustee controls the proceeds of the investment. He or she can either share them with the trustor or keep them.


I split six colleagues into three pairs. These are the results:


Coins visualisation

The Trustor invested two coins, keeping eight. The Trustee received six back and returned half to the Trustor.

The lesson

“A little trust begets a little trust.”



Pair two coins visualisation

The Trustor invested nine coins, keeping one. The Trustee received 27 back and returned all of them to the Trustor.

The lesson

“A lot of trust begets a lot of trust.”



Pair three coins visualisation

The Trustor invested eight coins, keeping two. The Trustee received six back and returned half to the Trustor.

The lesson

“The one can spoil it for the many.”

The amount of investment observed in the game is a measure of the amount of trust exhibited by trustors. The amount of investment proceeds given back to trustors is a measure of the amount of trustworthiness exhibited by trustees.

Under this interpretation, the outcome predicted by economics, which assumes absolute rationality, is grim. The investor, foreseeing that the allocator would keep the entire proceeds of any investment, would refuse to invest in the first place. Yet this never happened; all three trustors chose to invest, putting paid to the idea that we are entirely rational when it comes to money.

It should be noted that this experiment was conducted in anything but test conditions. Chocolate coins instead of cash, familiar subjects entirely suspicious of the whole affair and far too little data to return anything truly meaningful. If any conclusion can be drawn, it is that some people exhibit trust more freely than others – not exactly a socioeconomic revelation.

The mechanics of the experiment reveal considerably more. While economics would predict a no-investment scenario, the most beneficial outcome for both parties looks different. Were a trustor to invest the total amount of money – which would then be trebled – and the investor to then pay out half of that, both trustor and trustee win in equilibrium.


Because of its (growing) importance in driving economic growth, social scientists have spent a considerable amount of time and effort trying to understand trust. The beauty of the trust game is its laying bare of the fact that, where there is trust there can be deeper, more efficient and more beneficial social interaction.

“We’re entering the era of ‘trust marketing’, where the act of building relationships is of paramount importance to brands.”

Trust, then – whether between families, neighbours, colleagues, business partners or countries, is one of our most valuable commodities – but in order to harness its full potential we need to learn how to properly build it. Over the coming weeks and months we’ll be publishing a series of features centred on the theme of trust in relation to marketing and communications. We’ll be getting to grips with blockchain, taking a look at how trust can be built on the inside of a business and how the mainstream media got it so wrong. We’ll also be considering how a decade ago, UK banks possessed a level of trust that most brands today could only dream of – and whether that trust can ever be fully regained. As recently noted by Marketing Week, consumer trust in social media platforms and advertising is at an all-time low. More than ever, audiences are craving transparency, authenticity and credibility from brands. Trust needs to be revitalised in marketing – as it does in a great deal more industries – not just because it’s at a low ebb but because the future will depend on it. We’re entering the era of ‘trust marketing’, where the act of building relationships is of paramount importance to brands.

In the meantime, if you’d like to learn how content can increase trust, you’re in the right place. If you’ve got a project you think would benefit from the White Light approach, drop us a line and tell us all about it.

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If you have a project you think would benefit from the White Light approach, please get in touch and tell us all about it. We’re keen to help tackle the issues your business might face.

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