During 2016 politicians in both the UK (Michael Gove) and in the US (Donald Trump) repeatedly asserted that people have “had enough” of experts. Voting patterns seemed to confirm this as expert political and economic views were largely ignored. And yet, we also know it’s patently not true. If you have a health problem do you prefer to take the advice of an amateur or of an expert? What about if you were arrested?
So the real question is why do people trust some experts but reject others? Why do many people on the one hand seek medical experts for medical issues, but distrust climate experts for climate issues, and economic experts for economic issues?
It transpires there is an answer to this question – although it’s in a scientific paper so relies on the views of experts!
In a study published in 2015, psychological scientist Friederike Hendriks and her colleagues at the University of Muenster in Germany coined the term “epistemic trustworthiness”. This refers to our willingness or otherwise to place trust in, and listen to, an expert when we need to solve a problem that is beyond our understanding. The paper focused on our willingness to believe scientific facts but I suggest that the conclusions are more widely applicable.
The authors argue that for an expert to be high on epistemic trustworthiness they need three characteristics: expertise, integrity and benevolence. In other words, knowing stuff isn’t enough. This is key. For us to rate a person as a trustworthy expert they need to know their information, to be honest and to be good-hearted. There are also echoes here of the work on the power of Influence by Dr Robert Cialdini.
Being an expert is just not enough any more. Experts are more likely to be believed if they are likeable and evidently honest. I have addressed this previously on my blog. One way to evidence your honesty is to admit what you don’t know. In so doing you add credibility to what you do know about. You evidence your expertise partly by accepting its limitations.
The research paper “Measuring Laypeople’s Trust in Experts in a Digital Age: The Muenster Epistemic Trustworthiness Inventory (METI)” is actually a contradiction in terms. I am quoting it as justification for this blog post. But the very title of the paper works against it. In particular the very idea of something using a fancy term such as “Epistemic Trustworthiness” makes it less likely that many people will accept the premise of the paper.
Many experts make the same mistake. Clients are often alienated when they feel that we are using unfamiliar words and unintelligible acronyms. When we do this we are making the mistake of seemingly pushing our clients to rise to our level of sophistication and knowledge. We are much more likely to be trusted if we use words and phrases that are commonly understood and if we explain any necessary or helpful acronyms.
As experts we need to demonstrate that we are good, honest people who have our clients’ and prospective clients’ best interests at heart. We increase the likelihood that we will stand out from our competitors if we:
- communicate more clearly and hold back on the jargon;
- admit what we don’t know; and
- develop a genuine interest in helping other people.
In a continuing effort to practice what I preach, I would encourage you to look around this website. Access any materials and blog posts that you find of interest and do get in touch if you feel I might be able to help you. If I can’t I’ll admit it and hopefully will know someone who can!