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A conversation – Trust, what’s happening in the brain?

23rd July 2019
With Nadia Medjad, doctor and neuropedagogy expert, we attempt to understand the inner workings of trust. Nadia Medjad is an expert from the INRC on socio-emotional competences (soft skills). Co-author of the book “NeuroLearning: les neurosciences au service de la formation” [neurosciences for learning] (Eyrolles publishing). Founder of Neuro-Echology Consulting.


What is trust?

Nadia Medjad: To understand what trust is, we should remember what the brain’s fundamental role is; to keep us alive in a hostile environment. Hence the vital importance of a particular emotion – fear. This interior alarm signal prepares our body and brain for a choice: flight or fight. It is a choice that may seem extreme, faced with the banal situations of today’s world! But neurology tells us that our “logical mind” is very ancient, and that it doesn’t immediately differentiate between someone insulting us and a dangerous predator, for example. To put it another way, our brain always envisages, first and foremost, the most dangerous situation. By construction, we are pessimists, suspicious and on the lookout. This is why trust never comes immediately and must be obtained, or even won. We could therefore define it as a feeling of psychological and emotional security.

What happens when trust is compromised or lost?

N. M.: If trust is not established or is jeopardised, the brain is in a state of stress. It becomes hypervigilant and psycho-rigid, obsessed with security, to the detriment of the tasks at hand. In general, if a negative emotion arises – such as fear or anger – our “executive brain” crashes; it is no longer able to function logically. It is on red alert; the person loses control, and can no longer understand what is being said to them, their emotional reactions are disproportionate, simple instructions can no longer be followed. In order to regain a constructive dialogue, this emotion needs to be appropriately managed as an absolute priority(1). Furthermore, if trust is compromised, the person will resist. They will stop following you. They will demand justifications, proof and reasons to act. Be careful, as the customer’s efforts to adjust mount, their stress increases with a risk of flight (abandoning the process) or fight (aggression).

What compromises trust and what reinforces it?

N. M.: Trust is compromised when the brain is confronted with something ambiguous or difficult to understand. Faced with these ambiguous situations, the brain chooses to distrust, that is, to be pessimistic and to prepare for the worst-case scenario. In order to create trust, we therefore have to be as clear and transparent as possible. Hence the importance for brands to always facilitate understanding, because cognitive overload leads to stress and distrust. Do not bombard your customer with complex instructions, or with commercial offers that are irrelevant to them. On the contrary, make their task easier by removing any obstacles, for example.

From an ethical point of view, what limits should companies set themselves in order to earn trust?

N. M.: Today, companies utilise all existing levers of influence, but they have to know the difference between influencing and manipulating. When we manipulate, we are only pursuing our own interests, with no equitable sharing of the benefits. Trust is lost as soon as we realise that the other person does not have our interests at heart. Consequently, influencing is ethical as long as it builds a win-win relationship for the long term. For example, we have confidence in a salesman able to tell us “having seen your requirements, I don’t think we have the ideal product for you, but if you have to take one, this one is the most suitable for you”. This salesman has proven that he has understood our needs and is looking out for our best interests. He renounces the chance to “make a sale” – advantageous to him in the short term – and would rather satisfy us in the long term. He thus increases our engagement, our trust in the brand and, finally, our loyalty.

“Our brain always envisages, first and foremost, the most dangerous situation.”

Nadia Medjad



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Article by: Marion Windels

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