Why people trust bloggers over scientists and the reason it matters

Whether business or public health, trust is foundational. It’s why I might purchase a particular brand or heed the advice of a healthcare professional.

Yet unlike the trust of generations prior, built on inter-personal relationships, the story of trust is more complex in today’s digital, information-based economy. We hear a lot about American’s lost trust of institutions, whether government, science or the media. All three often play the role of the proverbial punching bag.

But as Rachel Botsman, a trust researcher from Oxford, cautioned during her TED talk in October,

“It would be easy to conclude that institutional trust isn’t working because we are fed up with the sheer audacity of dishonest elites, but what’s happening now runs deeper than the rampant questioning of the size and structure of institutions. We’re starting to realize that institutional trust wasn’t designed for the digital age. Conventions of how trust is built, managed, lost and repaired — in brands, leaders and entire systems — is being turned upside down.”

The results of this are profound. People would rather rent from AirBnB instead of booking a hotel room. People would rather use ride sharing apps instead of taxis. People even act upon the nutrition, diet, or health advice they read on social media or a blog post instead of what’s recommended by the so-called experts.

In essence, we’re leaving an age defined by “institutional trust” and quickly entering one that’s fueled by “distributed trust.”

For my field of public health, this shift should inspire careful reflection. We can’t assume that just because something worked several decades ago in an “institutional trust” era that it will do the same in a “distributed trust” era.

Trust underlies behavior. So if we’re going to understand why people do what they do, and why and how they change it, we need to better understand the new dynamics of trust.

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