The Price of Trust

In nature, a flower’s vibrant petals and pleasing aroma are signals that the flower has nectar to share. These signals attract bees and lets them know that they are a stop in which the bee can be a frequent customer. Just like flowers, we too are sending signals to others all day long to inspire long-term confidence and trust.

Life is signaling.

We all feel an intrinsic need to get other people to trust us. That’s what signaling is all about.

Here’s the thing about signaling: it isn’t cheap. Every signal we send comes with a cost.

Trust-building is hard work. Building trust requires the long-game.

The mom and pop shop on Main Street with an “Est. 1954” sign above the door frame helps us believe that we can trust the owners. They have reputational skin in the game and therefore have something to lose if they play the short game and rip us off.

Signals are effective when they inspire trust.

When bees visit a vibrant, pleasantly-smelling flower, you know that trust has been built. If that flower emitted the scent without any nectar available, the bees would quickly discover that flower to be a fraud and would not return. That’s why flowers play the long game. They need the bees’ continual pollination for their survival, so they’re not going to rip off the bees in a one-time deal.

The Costliness of Meaning

According to Rory Sutherland, meaning and significance are directly proportional to the expense with which a message is communicated. Said more succinctly, “costliness carries meaning.”

The lengths to which we go to deliver a message often help the recipient determine if they should trust us. This is the idea behind Costly Signaling Theory.

This principle can be seen in the way a man conveys an interest in a woman.


Types of Costly Signaling

There are many types of costly signaling, only limited by the creativity of your mind.

Here’s a brief list, given to us by Rory Sutherland in Alchemy: The Dark Art and Curious Science of Creating Magic in Brands, Business, and Life.

  • Creativity
  • Effort
  • Cost ($)
  • Talent
  • Time
  • Skill
  • Humor
  • Bravery

Sacrifice is the Price of Trust

The extent to which you sacrifice and absorb costs in the short-term convey long-term cooperation. A commitment to long-term cooperation is better known as a reputation. The best way to build a good reputation among others is to continually sacrifice your present good for a cooperative future great.

Costliness is the price of trust. To build trust, you must be willing to sacrifice something. Sutherland points this out:

“Quite simply, all powerful messages must contain an element of absurdity, illogicality, costliness, disproportion, inefficiency, scarcity, difficulty or extravagance – because rational behaviour and talk, for all their strengths, convey no meaning.”

Rory Sutherland

To make this more concrete, here’s a brilliant example of creativity, humor, and bravery in a wedding invitation from Alchemy:

Costly signals come in many forms, and they can all be effective. But which one you choose can convey a lot about what you’re trying to say.


Thanks to Rory Sutherland for his book, Alchemy: The Dark Art and Curious Science of Creating Magic in Brands, Business, and Life. Most of the ideas in this post came from that book. It’s wonderful. You should consider reading it.