Why distrust can be deadly for new relationships

"If you've known someone for a long time, you're more likely to trust this person again and recover from the trust breach because the brain processes this as more of an automatic response," Martin Reimann says. (Credit: Oliver Hoffmann/Flickr)

People in established relationships recover better from a breach of trust and are more likely to forgive and move on, a new study shows.

“Many researchers have looked at trust versus distrust, but few have looked at how trust develops over time and how a breach of trust impacts subsequent decisions, and only recently have researchers began to focus on trust recovery,” says Martin Reimann, an assistant professor in the University of Arizona Eller College of Management’s Department of Marketing.

The findings, reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, could have implications beyond individual relationships, suggesting how people engage with brands.

Marketing and brand loyalty

“In a marketing context, this could have implications in business to business marketing, where you work closely with a partner in another company, for example in a sales relationship,” he said.


“This can also be applied to the context of brands. Many people engage in loyalty programs with brands, like airlines or hotels, and the question is what happens if your favorite company breaches your trust. Will you recover or will you switch to another brand?” he asks.

“One idea to apply this to the marketing context is to compare what we’ve found to brands and firms and understand how this mechanism works,” he adds. “What I would expect—given our findings—is that people would recover better from a trust breach if they have been involved with the brand for a long time because they’re habitualized to the relationship.”

Brain images

Reimann and colleagues in sociology at UCLA and Stanford University used two experiments—one behavioral and one involving neuroimaging—to compare trust breaches and discovered a key element that guided recovery.

The neurophysiological research found that two separate cognition systems in different parts of the brain—one guiding more controlled responses and one in control of more automatic responses—are at work.

With new relationships, the controlled social cognition system guided responses, while the automatic social cognition system was responsible for responses in established relationships.

“If you’ve known someone for a long time, you’re more likely to trust this person again and recover from the trust breach because the brain processes this as more of an automatic response,” Reimann says.

“Little has been done contrasting these two systems, the automatic habit-based system and the controlled system, in interpersonal decision-making. We suggest that future investigations look at this differentiation more closely.”

Source: University of Arizona