Asif & Bennett 2021

How Do We Design For Low Trust Situations?

This past spring, Stanford Learning, Design, and Technology Master student Shaan Asif ’20 was an intern in the GDT Research Group, working on innovation in low-trust areas of the world.

She and Chris Bennett collaborated on a white paper on that subject that is now available for download.

This paper concentrates on Pakistan, as Shaan has much experience in this country and performed her research there on how and why it can be a low-trust environment.

One important takeaway is the framework that was constructed for this paper.

(Asif & Bennett, 2021)

The critical tasks that organizations can follow to increase trust (and innovation) are discussed in this framework:

Create Small Teams

Research also shows that small teams are ideal for positive spontaneous norm formation, as the group size provides visibility and creates dependence among team members, who are then in a position where holding one another to norms of mutually beneficial actions is preferable (Fukuyama, 2000).

Emphasize Dependencies

Due to the reality of resource scarcity, it is critical that employees understand that their job security and job performance is not contingent upon others’ failure, but on collective success (Asif & Bennett, 2021).

Model Caring Behavior

(The) Dutch company Krauthammer has set one of its values, “Passion for People”, to reflect the importance of taking care of and showing concern for coworkers (Six & Sorge, 2008).

Praise the Process, Not the Person

Our aim in this step of the trust-building process is to disrupt the norm of individual glory, through introduction of a new norm: praising the process rather than the person (Asif & Bennett, 2021).


This research for this paper also harkens back to a d.school pop-up class that Chris Bennett and Margarita Quihuis taught back in 2014 with colleagues Mark Nelson, current Dean of the Air Force Cyber College Karen Gutierri, and retired Special Forces Colonel Robert Jones.

This was a class to explore how game design thinking, behavior design, and online sharing economy exchanges can disrupt the way we understand and build trust in conflict environments.

We had several hypotheses that students used to develop trust methodologies for their own problem/solution matrixes:

  • There are individual components of trust.
  • If we start with an artificial form (of trust) we can get to a more natural form.
  • There are X mechanisms needed to move from an artificial state of trust to a natural one.
  • How would we design a game that establishes the rules upfront, but then in the play of the game, perceptions, and rulemaking become more natural?
  • Once we learn a tool, how do we apply it to the situation at hand?
  • Core Loops: what do people do once they start to play?
  • Compulsion Analysis: how does behavior develop over time with sustained acts? How do we design for sustained play?

So an important first step in building trust in low-trust environments is identifying where the trust is breaking. Once those areas are identified, artificial trust mechanisms can be designed, integrated, and practiced to help scaffold to natural trust mechanisms.


Once again, the concept of the core loop is key to identifying situations that are breaking trust and making changes to improve both trust and innovation.
from Bennett
(Bennett, 2019)

Whether it’s a Core Loop of Sexual Harassment or the Core Loop of Hate Crimes, we need to develop a Core Engagement Loop for low-trust situations that model the positive behaviors that we are after and properly reward them.