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By Eric Swedlund, University Communications

How people repair relationships after a breach of trust depends on whether the relationship is new or firmly established, new research suggests.

Martin Reimann

Martin Reimann

In a paper analyzing particular brain responses in regards to breaches of trust, Martin Reimann and his coauthors found that people recover better in established relationships and are more likely to forgive and move on.

Reimann, a new assistant professor in the Eller College’s Department of Marketing, says the research has implications for both the neuroscience of trust and the social psychology of trust.

“Many researchers have looked at trust versus distrust, but few have looked at how trust develops over time and how a breach of trust impacts subsequent decisions, and only recently have researchers began to focus on trust recovery,” Reimann said.

The research paper, “Effect of Relationship Experience on Trust Recovery Following a Breach,” was published in August in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Reimann and colleagues in sociology at UCLA and Stanford used two experiments – one behavioral and one involving neuroimaging – to compare trust breaches and discovered a key element that guided recovery.

The neurophysiological research found that two separate cognition systems in different parts of the brain – one guiding more controlled responses and one in control of more automatic responses – are at work. With new relationships, the controlled social cognition system guided responses, while the automatic social cognition system was responsible for responses in established relationships.

“If you’ve known someone for a long time, you’re more likely to trust this person again and recover from the trust breach because the brain processes this as more of an automatic response,” Reimann said. “Little has been done contrasting these two systems, the automatic habit-based system and the controlled system, in interpersonal decision making. We suggest that future investigations look at this differentiation more closely.”

A psychologist with a focus on decision neuroscience by training, Reimann is working to apply the research findings to questions and scenarios in marketing.

“In a marketing context, this could have implications in business to business marketing, where you work closely with a partner in another company, for example in a sales relationship,” he said.

“This can also be applied to the context of brands. Many people engage in loyalty programs with brands, like airlines or hotels, and the question is what happens if your favorite company breaches your trust. Will you recover or will you switch to another brand?” he asked.

Reimann’s teaching in marketing policy and operations also will explore that area.

“One idea to apply this to the marketing context is to compare what we’ve found to brands and firms and understand how this mechanism works,” he said. “What I would expect – given our findings – is that people would recover better from a trust breach if they have been involved with the brand for a long time because they’re habitualized to the relationship.”

Broken chain photo courtesy Shutterstock.