Wednesday, December 26, 2012

69. Sources of trust

Trust is emotional, since it is related to vulnerability, risk, fear, and hope. It depends on character. With less self-confidence one feels more vulnerable and less inclined to trust. It depends on experience. Disappointments reduce trust. Trust can also be rational, in an analysis of the motives and conditions for people to be reliable.

Trust depends on conditions. Under threat of survival trust will be less. If there is no alternative for partners, and they ‘are condemned to each other’, there is pressure to make trust work, as among marriage partners, and government departments.   

Rational analysis goes as follows. As indicated in the previous item in this blog it is useful to distinguish between reliance, which includes both control and trust beyond control. Control can be based on formal hierarchy (the trustor is the boss), a contract, dependence of the trustee on the trustor, or the need for the trustee to maintain his/her reputation. In one-sided dependence the most dependent submits to the power of the least dependent, and while this is not necessarily fatal, it is wise to aim at a balance of mutual dependence. 

There is also the possibility of a hostage: the trustor has something of value to the trustee and can threaten to treat it badly unless the trustee acts reliably. In old times that took the form of family or nobility surrendered to the trustor. Nowadays it typically takes the form of information that is sensitive to the trustee, such as knowledge concerning a product or technology. The trustor can threaten to make information public or to pass it on to a competitor of the trustee. Ït is a form of blackmail.

Beyond control, trust can be based on norms, morality or ethics, or on personal empathy or identification, or simply on routine: a relationship has become habitual and the question of reliability no longer comes up. Empathy is the ability to put oneself in the shoes of the partner, to understand his/her position and how he/she thinks. Identification goes further, in feeling a bond, thinking like the other, or making his/her fate part of one’s own. Empathy is needed for trust, but identification may go too far, locking a relationship up.

Trust and control are both complements (they go together) and substitutes (they replace each other). Control can never be complete and where control ends one must surrender to trust. And vice versa: trust can hardly be absolute, trust should not be blind, and where it ends one may want to have some control. But the more trust one has the less control one needs to exert, which gives more room and flexibility for the relationship.

The greater uncertainty is, concerning behaviour and conditions, and the more difficult it is to monitor conduct of the trustee, the more difficult it is to exert control, and the more one needs trust. That is the case, in particular, in innovation. There, one must leave room for the unexpected. And uncertainty limits the scope and force of contracts and monitoring of compliance.

I remind the reader that you are very welcome to post a comment, to which I will then respond. 


  1. Trial identification for the purpose of empathy play a normal part in normal relationships, also between us and our children. Would you agree that it is partial or projective identification we so easily move towards,as we often think to know what is best for them and want them to survive,which locks them up? Do we trust their judgements enough to refrain from this and only show empathy? Or do we as parents all suffer from at least a mild form of what I would like to call: "protective projection"?

  2. Fransje, thank you for your comment. Your point that there are several forms of identification is a very good one. I will dedicate the following item of this blog to that point.