Trust is our most important foundation for navigating a complex, data-filled world. And yet, an ADP Research Institute study shows that having a high level of trust in our colleagues and organizations is at its lowest level in recent memory. In a world where content marketing is on the rise, content makers are everywhere and can reach into your life more directly than ever before, there are three skills to help you confer your trust as wisely as possible. First is to look out for and call out practices that Weaken Our Relationship to Truth (or “WORTs”). Next, we need to become data-fluent by learning how to spot error-free data. Finally, we need to ensure the experts we listen to have knowledge and experience in the area in which they are speaking or writing.
It’s frightening to imagine a world without trust. Only by trusting what we see, hear, and read can we navigate our lives and stay grounded in reality, not to mention thrive.
According to a recent global study of 25,000 workers by the ADP Research Institute the single most powerful driver of resilience and engagement is trust. When you completely trust your colleagues, your team leader, and your senior leaders, you are far more likely to give your best, to feel you belong in your organization, to stay with your company, and to say your strengths are being called upon every day.
And yet today, according to this same global study, only 7% of us feel this level trust in our lives. This is the lowest we’ve ever seen.
Your trust is your most precious possession. When you choose to give it to someone, this connection between you and them becomes both your lifeline and your compass – it pulls you forward and steers your course. So, in the Age of Content – a world where content marketing is on the rise, and content makers are everywhere and can reach into your life more directly than ever before – here are three skills to help you confer your trust as wisely as possible.
Protect Yourself from WORTs
Whether you’re aware of it or not, your life is filled with worts. A wort is anything that deliberately tries to blur the line between what is true and what is not. The outcome of a wort — whether intended or not — is that it reduces the overall level of trust in the world. It Weakens Our Relationship to the Truth. It lessens our fluency in the language of truth and fiction. It’s because we’ve let so many little worts into our lives that we now find it so hard to distinguish big lies from big truths.
For example, magazines used to draw a bright line between advertising and editorial. Today those lines are increasingly fuzzy. The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Fast Company, and Fortune all have sections of content which have been paid for by the writer. And this writer is not a journalist, but is instead on the payroll of a company. The entire “CIO Journal” section of the WSJ, for example, is bought by the consulting company Deloitte; last month’s issue of Fortune magazine had sixteen real articles, and nineteen worts — pieces made to look like articles from Fortune but which were actually written by companies to bolster the reputation of these same companies.
When a podcast host segues from their regular content to describe how their sponsor’s product has made their life so much better, this is a wort. If a podcast host reads out the names of their sponsors, or the tagline of the sponsor and the sponsor’s description of their product’s benefits, these are not worts — they are transparently ads, where the host is paid a certain rate to read the ad copy aloud. But if the podcaster takes that next step and describes vividly how the sponsor’s product has made their own life better, they get paid a much, much higher ad rate, and instantly this becomes a wort. Even if the podcast host genuinely likes the product, we no longer know whether they truly do, or whether they say they do only because they are being paid so much more to say they do. And we will never know. So each time a podcaster does this, little by little they reduce our ability to discern what is real from what is not.
This intentional interweaving of a podcaster’s actual life with the products they’re pitching is a brand new, and very effective form of marketing — if it were not effective we wouldn’t hear so many podcasters advising us to “use my code, and you’ll get 20% off.” But it is wrong. It weakens our relationship to truth — which is why media outlets concerned with maintaining their credibility, such as NPR, PBS, and the broadcast news networks do not allow their hosts to do this.
When your favorite Instagram influencer tells you she can’t possibly live without this certain shoe, this too is a wort. If you were to stop and think about it, you might guess that the shoe maker has paid the influencer, but it’s not clear that they have. In fact, it’s deliberately opaque. Instagram is pockmarked with worts, where super successful influencers, under the guise of letting you into their daily lives, pitch you product they’ve been paid to pitch. Scrolling through your feed might feel as if you’re getting fascinating glimpses of the lives of others, but in truth what you’re mostly doing is watching one infomercial after another.
Learn to spot a wort and call it out. Tell your favorite podcast host to stop blurring the lines. DM your Instagram influencers to disclose what they’ve been paid to push at you. Ask your news sources to not publish content whose express intent is to confuse.
Trust Only Error-Free Data
Data can definitely help you know whom and what to trust. But the trick is to become data-fluent by learning how to spot error-free data.
There are only three ways to generate data. You can count things, rank things, or rate things. Of the three, counting things is the most reliable, the least error-filled. For example, conversations are not data. So when someone tells you “Well, we’ve talked to a lot of people…” this is isn’t data. It’s anecdote, and, as the saying has it, the plural of anecdote isn’t data. So, ask them, “exactly how many people did you speak to, were they selected to represent the broader population at large, and what specific questions did you ask?”
And data isn’t just “numbers.” What you’re looking for are reliable numbers. If you have a broken thermometer, it will generate numbers. But if your thermometer is broken the numbers don’t mean anything. So, if someone throws a number at you, ask how that number was generated, as in, what specifically were they counting? For example, if you hear on the news that remote workers are less productive than workers who go back to the office, your first question might be: how are you counting productivity? If the person can’t reliably count productivity they can’t possibly know whether remote or office workers are more productive. In which case, withhold your trust. (And by the way, aside from sales and manufacturing output, no one has yet found a reliable way to count worker productivity, so anyone saying anything about which workers are more productive is suspect.)
“Research” isn’t data. So whenever you hear someone say “My research shows…” your critical thinking hackles should rise. A real researcher would never say “My research shows…” Instead they would say “The data show….” because they’d honor that, as a critical thinker, you’d want to know precisely how they were measuring what they claimed to be measuring, and whether their measuring stick was reliable — or was merely a broken thermometer.
For example, if someone says, “My research shows that all the best business leaders have these four skills,” the critical thinker would ask: how did you know these leaders were the best, and how did you count reliably each of these skills? If the person can’t answer these two questions (and by the way, they can’t, since no one has yet found a way to reliably count a leader’s “skills”), think twice about trusting them.
Learn How to Spot Real Expertise
The simplest sign that you’re listening to an expert you can trust is experience. Before you give your trust to someone, ask yourself if they have patterns of experience in the very thing they claim to be expert in. You don’t have to be a medical expert to know that, in an expertise “battle” between a retired radiologist such as Scott Atlas and a working infectious disease specialist such Anthony Fauci, you don’t need to layer on politics; instead you simply give your trust to the person with the deepest relevant experience.
Second, look for humility. Online we are under constant assault by the arrogance of amateurs. Amateurs — because they don’t know very much about the particular subject — tend to be grandiose in their claims. Experts take a humbler approach. They know that knowledge is like a circle: the more knowledge they have, the more the circumference of what they realize they don’t know grows. So, whenever you hear careful and limited answers, you’re probably listening to someone you can trust.
Third, trustworthy experts are independently accredited. Their credibility doesn’t come from hordes of followers, but instead from unbiased groups of fellow experts — people whose only agenda is to ensure that their subject area maintains its integrity.
In most subject areas these fellow experts have created what are called “refereed journals.” That is, journals where the author has to submit their findings anonymously to a group of fellow experts who then decide if the research is valid enough to publish — the New England Journal of Medicine is one such journal. Each discipline has their own collection of refereed journals. So, if a friend or family member says “You’ve gotta read this article…,” ask, “Was it published in any refereed journal?” If the answer is no, then put your critical thinking hat on and keep your trust in your pocket.
Finally, stay alert for expertise-creep. Check to make sure that the expert is credentialed in the area in which they’re claiming expertise. Without doubt anyone with a PhD deserves your respect. However, to be a critical thinker, always be curious about precisely what their doctorate is in. You might respect a person with a PhD in sociology, but only if they’re opining about sociology. Be careful not to take financial advice from a chemist, or happiness guidance from an economist. PhDs, though valuable, reflect depth, not breadth. They are non-transferable, subject to subject.
So, if that friend or family member, says, “We can trust her, she’s a professor!” Be sure to ask, “In what?”
As the ADP Research Institute data show, the recent dramatic increase in the volume of content available to us has led to an equally dramatic decrease in the level of trust in the world. We can’t dam the flood of content, but we can, by learning these three skills, become more intelligent in how we filter it. We can dismiss worts, put our faith in error-free data, trust only true expertise, and let all the rest flow right on by.