What has trust got to do with it?

Science communicators strive to make science understandable, if not engaging.  Yet, our impact depends on far more than clarity.  When discussing the dangers of climate change or the benefits of a water conservation strategy, we need to have people listening to us, believing us, and heeding what we are saying when they make decisions.  In other words, we need people to trust us.

Trust, according to research in marketing, reflects our perceptions of someone’s competence and their benevolence.  We ask ourselves, does this person know what they are talking about, and are they inclined to be helpful to me?

It is often hard for members of our audience to tell if we are truly competent because we often know more about the topic than they do.  There is rarely a test that they can run beyond checking our track record or relying on our reputation.  Similarly, how can they assess if we will be helpful to their cause or aligned with their values?  Yet, people decide whom to trust every day.  Theorists suggest that these assessments of trust occur through a series of cycles propelled by inferences.

Renowned organizational behaviour theorist, Prof Chris Argyris of Harvard Business School, proposed a ‘ladder of inference’ model to describe the steps that we take to make decisions.  His ladder includes: (1) selective attention; (2) recall of seemingly relevant experiences; (3) making assumptions; (4) inferring outcomes based on the observations and assumptions; and, finally, (5) acting on our conclusions.

A similar process in the course of ‘experiential learning’ was identified by well-known educational theorist, Prof David Kolb.  Kolb noted that we go through learning cycles that involve a concrete experience, observation and reflection on what happened, efforts to generalise from these events, and development of experiments to undertake – employing new strategies that might gain the outcomes that we want.

The study of rhetoric adds consideration of logic, emotion, and character to the mix.  Discourse analysis and linguistics bring in assessment of person, information, and the nature of the interaction, including its ritual elements.   In other words, actor, text, and context.

These theories suggest that a decision on whether to trust someone results from multi-step, cyclic processes involving selective attention, judgments about whom and what are relevant – where emotions can play a role — and inferred conclusions.  That makes the job of a science communicator a lot more than just being ‘clear’.  Trust me …

Want to know more?  The ASC NSW chapter has asked me to host a roundtable discussion early in 2011 with ‘experts’ on trust from a range of fields, far beyond ‘the usual suspects’.  Trust is an area that is ripe for discussion and research.  Stay tuned for details.|

Will Rifkin, PhD
Director, Science Communication Program
willrifkin [at] unsw.edu.au