Ignite 2018 Melissa Koenig Banner image

What Child Development Research Can Teach us About Trust

August 14 2018

Every day of our lives, we’re navigating through a sea of information. If you’re beginning to feel as if the water is reaching up to your chin sometimes, you’re not alone. While we’re all consumers ourselves, many of us have jobs which require a focus on how we can help a brand’s message make it to the top of this rising sea and capture interest, attention and—especially important in the context of this conference’s sub theme—trust.
There are many marketing experts out there who will tell you they have the magic bullet for creating, building and maintaining lasting consumer trust. My presentation at Ignite 2018—Protecting Trust in Today’s Consumer Journey will focus on an overlooked resource for gaining this kind of understanding—the perceptions and observations of young children. 

Two Kinds of Trust

My work at the University of Minnesota Institute on Childhood Development and Director of the Early Language and Experience Lab is focused on young children. Over the years, I’ve been able to clear up some misconceptions about children and help academicians, educators and business practitioners better understand the ways that trust is built—and broken—at the beginning of our lives. It may surprise you to find that while children know less about the world than we do, they are rational learners. They are not as credulous or gullible as we think, and they actually bring a lot of same considerations to bear as adults do when evaluating people and situations for their trustworthiness.

Trust is not an emotional or mental state – rather it’s an ability or skill. I’ve focused my research on the two basic types of trust: epistemic or evidential trust, which is how we evaluate what others say against what we already know; and interpersonal trust, which is how we respond to the people with whom we interact. I’ve learned how they evaluate claims against other things they know to be true.

Trust Styles

One thing that’s been especially valuable in my research has been learning about the different “varieties of trust ” of the young subjects who participate in my studies. We’re learning about the factors and considerations that go into making a “trust or don’t trust” decision. We’re also finding out the basic mechanics of what happens when trust is violated. As it turns out, there are also individual differences in how children blame those who gave them the wrong information. We don’t all approach information—or misinformation—in the same way, so there is still a lot for us to learn.

The lessons we’re learning from children translate in many respects to the ways adolescents and adults understand trust as it’s applied to information they receive and share. The insight we’re gaining into the human mind at its earliest stages can be valuable information not just for researchers or educators, but for those who work with consumers, as well. Trust is an issue that has been thrust into the spotlight in recent years, and learning how humans being the process of calibrating and evaluating the messages they receive can be important for those who seek to build trust.

Register now
Register for “Ignite 2018—Protecting Trust in Today’s Consumer Journey.” I’ll be sharing highlights of my findings at the conference, which will be held September 20 at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. Sponsored by YA and The Institute for Research in Marketing (IRM). Each session pairs a presentation by a corporate leader with that of a research scholar, with the goal of connecting academic findings with real-world practices.


Melissa Koenig is a Professor at the University of Minnesota Institute on Child Development and Director of the Early Language and Experience Lab 

Receive Updates