Can Headlines Change the Way You Think About Trust?

Three ways to gain a clearer trust perspective

Posted Sep 25, 2015

Research published in the The Journal of Experimental Psychology confirms "misleading headlines affect readers' memory, their inferential reasoning and behavioral intentions," even when the article itself corrects the misimpression the headline gives, and the entire article is read.

Inaccurate or misleading headlines have lingering and real effects on everything from our understanding of issues to our perceptions of trustworthiness. The reality is, whether misleading headlines are deliberately developed for "click bait" or for influencing opinion, beliefs can be entrenched, opinions formed, or trust diminished simply by skimming headlines, reading tweets, or listening to sound bites.

Take this CNN headline as an example: "Trust Lacking in the Supreme Court over Key Issues." The article states "many lack trust in the Supreme Court's handling of those two issues," (italics are mine), referring to recent decisions. The article later states that "most approve of the way the court is handling its job generally." Yet was that the impression you would have had if you read just the headline?

So, if views about trust are affected when headlines are misleading, what happens when they're real? Issues such as: Hacker credit card and fingerprint theft; Volkswagen emission fraud; or ship-it-anyway salmonella peanut butter.

From congressional antics to steroid taking athletes; test-score-changing teachers to evidence tampering police; and executive misdeeds to neighbor-predators, we're bombarded with real situations that cause disbelief, inviting the response: "Seriously! Now, who can you trust?"

But we need to pause; caution is warranted. The challenge with both misleading information and real information is they both can skew perceptions about people and whether we should trust them or not, positively or negatively. They both impact us.

To counter the effect headlines, snippets, and sound bites have on you, use these three approaches:

Bing Image - free to use and share
Source: Bing Image - free to use and share
  1. Think local. Is there anything about this news that applies to you and the people you personally know? If not, stay focused on the local elements. Don't extrapolate what's out-there to what you know to be true for you and the people you work or interact with.
  2. Consider the odds. The odds of dealing with trustworthy people is very high. There are 3.1 million public school teachers in the U.S; 2.8 million federal government employees; 900,000 police officers; and 30 million businesses in the U.S., with countless leaders.  A tiny percentage of these people are in the trust-diminishing headlines we read.
  3. Is it true? Check the facts. There's a sign on my desk which reads: "Don't Believe Everything You Think." In this case, don't believe everything you read or hear either. Rumors are rampant and false information spreads quickly. In fact, the World Economic Forum has identified, "the rapid spread of false information as a key trend."

Perceptions influence relationships and trust. One way to counter that is by ensuring that the information that contributes to trust or distrust is both real and accurate.

While most of us can't affect national trust levels, we can certainly affect those in our sphere of influence – in our work groups, families, neighborhoods, schools, and communities. If you start where you are and do what you can to positively impact trust where you work and live, you won't need to worry about those diminishing trust headlines influencing your relationships.

You'll find more tips and trust building behaviors for yourself and your work group:

You'll find five trust essentials in my book: Trust, Inc.: How to Create a Business Culture That Will Ignite Passion, Engagement, and Innovation (Career Press, 2014).

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