The science of trust: how the brain is wired for customer loyalty

Customer Loyalty relies heavily on trust. If your customers trust you, they are much more likely to be loyal to your business. Research in psychology shows that there is a science to building trust. Follow the rules hard-wired into our brains to build trust and convert it into customer loyalty.

Customer Don't Trust SalesmanLike any good relationship, when it comes to customer loyalty, trust is crucial. If you want to build a long-term relationship with your customer, they have to trust you. You don’t need to be a Psychologist to know this. But it would help.

Our brains are wired to follow specific rules when it comes to building trust. Understanding these rules, then, is the foundation of long-lasting customer loyalty. Know how to earn your customer’s trust and you know how to keep them loyal.


Gaining a customer’s trust is notoriously difficult. At the end of the day, you’re trying to get people’s money. And they tend to be wary of that. Consumers have no reason to trust you before a transaction but a lot of reasons not to.

Just ask any car salesman if they feel trusted by their customers and you’ll get a barrage of exasperation: “People distrust us before they’ve even set foot in our showroom! We’re tarnished as social pariahs!”

Global Distrust in Business Continues

What’s more, worldwide trust in institutions is vulnerable. Globally, only 56% of people trust business and only 47% trust the media. After the 2008 recession, the world’s consumers are still licking their wounds from the large-scale abuse of trust by Big Business. Now faced with the phenomenon of fake news, people are putting their guards back up.

Global Trust in Business

Whether at the global or the individual level, it takes a lot of time and hard work to earn a customer’s trust. Yet it can be undone in an instant.

Faced with pre-conceived judgements about your industry and the threat of external forces on business as a whole, it would be reasonable to conclude that you stand no chance of gaining your customer’s trust. Can you even do anything to actually earn somebody’s trust? Or do all instances of trust happen purely by chance?


Well, the good news is, trust is actually a science. And science doesn’t really accept the role of chance. Science prefers rules of law.

Research in Social Psychology has shown that there are two components to trust. And, more importantly, there is a direct causal relationship between trust and customer loyalty.

Put simply: if you can get your customer to trust you in these two distinct ways, they will be more loyal to you.

So, what are these two components of trust?

Well, the technical terminology calls them ‘Cognitive Trust’ and ‘Affective Trust’. They’re kind of akin to trusting with your head and with your heart. Cognitive trust is basically the trust you have that somebody knows what they’re talking about. And affective trust is trusting that somebody will do the right thing, that they’re a good person.

The two types of trust are determined by very different things. Cognitive trust is determined by the individual’s expertise, their performance at their job and satisfaction with previous interactions. This all seems fairly straightforward – you trust someone because they’ve proven that they can walk the talk.


Affective trust is a bit more nuanced than that. And, I suppose it should be really. After all, it’s a question of feelings rather than facts and evidence. Three things determine affective trust: reputation, similarity and, confusingly, cognitive trust.

Let’s have a closer look at those three factors:

Reputation: again, this one seems fairly straightforward – a company or an individual’s reputation shapes how much you trust them to do the right thing.

Similarity: this refers to how much you share opinions and attitudes with the person in question. Basically – you trust people more if they think like you. We are automatically less trusting of people who don’t share our views and opinions.

Cognitive trust: now this seems rather counterintuitive – how can one component of trust influence another? Well, it actually makes a lot of sense. Basically, it means our hearts listen to our heads. Once we’ve learnt to trust that somebody knows what they’re talking about, we start to trust that they will do the right thing.

Causal Relationship Trust Customer Loyalty

So, this means there is a series of tangible steps you can take to get your customers to trust you. Essentially, to gain trust you need to have the whole package – all the elements of cognitive trust and all the elements of affective trust. But, because cognitive trust precedes affective trust, you need to start there. If you start by proving that you are knowledgeable and capable, the rest will follow, and people will start to trust you with both their heads and their hearts.


So, what does this mean for customer loyalty? Let’s go back to our exasperated car salesman as an example. Armed with this new knowledge, we can now shed some light on how he can tackle all the negative stereotypes and start building some trust among his customers. Of course, tackling years of ingrained stereotypes of ‘the sleazy car salesman’ is extremely difficult and will take a lot of time.

But it starts with proving that he knows his stuff.

By showing that he knows what he’s talking, the salesman will start to build both cognitive and affective trust. This means the customer will slowly start to open up to him. Now he actually has the chance to satisfy his customer (thereby increasing his cognitive trust). And then as the relationship grows and they get to know each other, the car salesman can share his views and opinions. The more the customer realises that they have in common, the more the trust grows.

By this point, our car salesman has a solid foundation of trust (both cognitive and affective) to work towards customer loyalty. Now that his customers have started to trust him, they will consider coming back to him for future purchases. After all, they don’t want to go through all the effort of learning to trust another ‘sleazy car salesman’. They’ve already exerted a lot of emotional energy on learning to trust this one. So, they’re sticking with him.


Gaining customer loyalty, then, starts with trust. Work on getting your customers to trust you on a personal level and you will earn their loyalty. And, whilst building personal relationships is definitely an art, there is also a science to it. As a science, it comes with rules and processes that lead the way to customer loyalty. All you have to do is trust them.

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