Tuesday, January 8, 2013


73. Psychology of trust

Earlier in this blog (item 46) I argued that people have an instinct for self-interest and survival as well as an instinct for altruism, at least within the groups to which they feel they belong. According to research in social psychology this is reflected in two opposing mind frames that people can have: a frame of defence and mistrust, in protecting one’s interests (self-interest) and a frame of trust, in solidarity with the group (altruism).

A mind frame is a mental framework in which observation, sense making and interpretation take place, plus a repertoire of responses. See my earlier analysis of scripts (in items 34, 35): what is observed is fitted into scripts and that triggers response, again according to scripts. In the defensive frame one will be inclined to scrutinize observed conduct for signs of danger and threat, taking untrustworthiness as the default: one mistrusts until contrary evidence arises. In the solidarity frame one will take trustworthiness as the default.

The default of trust rather than distrust is to be recommended. With mistrust, the trustee has to prove trustworthiness and that is as impossible as proving that a theory is true. And distrust blocks the opportunity for a relationship to develop and demonstrate trustworthiness. With trust as the default, when adverse conduct is experienced one can narrow the room for trust and tighten controls.

The main point now is that one can only be in one frame at any moment, but the other frame hovers in the background. One may switch frames, depending on evidence, experience and emotions. The more robust a frame is, the less easily one will switch. When one feels threatened, the solidarity frame may switch into the protective frame, and once that happens the reverse switch tends to be difficult. There is a saying that ‘trust comes on foot and departs on horseback’. The solidarity frame often is less robust than the protective frame.

The adoption of one frame or another depends on relational signalling: one treats observed conduct as a signal that indicates the frame the other person is in. That observation is fitted into scripts corresponding with the frame one is in and if that does not succeed a switch may arise. The trustee should be aware that what he/she does or says has that effect. When one is in the solidarity frame one should make sure that this is reflected in what one says and does: demonstrating commitment, competence, and fair play. It is also important to prevent doubt and ambiguity and too high expectations that can only lead to the disappointment that may trigger the partner’s switch to the defensive, self-interested frame. This can lie in seemingly trivial details. Having received an e-mail message one should always respond to it, lest the sender wonders whether the message was received and is getting attention, or the receiver is not interested.

This analysis further emphasizes the importance of openness discussed in the preceding item of this blog.