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.   


  1. When we live in a tribal system or an old tight group with common interests and old habits/rites I think having trust is easier than in our modern open society. As individuals we are standing freely in the strong winds of change. As inhabitants of cities our possibilities rise, but our fears are growing too.
    The horseback disappeared in modern life and trust departs even faster nowadays. People and institutions we admired for their morality and stability were like ballons in the company of needles. How to repair a kind of stability we need to trust? And how to make a modern moral fundament, that we can use as starting point for giving trust?

    1. Noud, Earlier we discussed the possibility of bringing many activities, such as finance, care of the sick and elderly, tending public space, energy production, down to the local, community level. That would help. Second, we should transform economic science. Policy makers still listen to economists who claim that we need markets and that in markets trust is impossible. I agree that we need markets in some form, but markets are about both competition and collaboration, and they need trust. Related to that,we need to change our fundamental, philosophical outlook on humanity and society. I am trying to contribute to that with this blog.

    2. Mutual dependence, as you argue in 66, shows itself in give and take and in acceptance of difference. Dependence in the first place, though, is presented as a risk (of collaboration) in 67. Then, in 71, ‘trust pricks up its ears’ ( such lovely metaphor). So , as the notion of ‘risk’ prefigures, there is something in the air calling for attention.
      My attention was caught by this: is it implied that risk, dependence, difference carry negative connotations in your argument? If so, why? If not, would you agree that these concepts all pertain to levels of power and that power is in itself neutral? Moreover, as soon as power is recognized both in so-called subject and so-called object there seems to be less reason to worry about risk, now that it is about a whole experiencing various influences. Empathy, or so I notice, does play a part in your argument. Why not make it a larger one, bordering on dependence yet not crossing over into identification, which I would think to be unrealistic.
      What I should like to read your thoughts about is kenosis, loss of self, or at least self deflation, as a value. Would self deflation contribute to the local, small scale organization of society? ( note, 73) This would then be developed not from practical necessity as it was in the olden days, but now from conviction, faith, if you like.
      Will trust be able to snooze in its basket once more?

    3. Paula, Thank you for your comment. Dependence can and should be seen positively, especially in personal relationships. I must admit that I have been thinking more about relationships between firms. And there, in markets, people are in fact apprehensive about dependence. And if it is clearly one-sided, one indeed needs to take care. As I said earlier, markets are about both competition and collaboration. The paradox is that collaboration entails dependence but competition can exploit one-sided dependence, one-sided power. When competition prevails one may have to go for control rather than trust. One can try to build a balance of mutual dependence or to build trust. But even then it may not be wise to 'let trust snooze in its basket (that is a nice metaphor as well). But in personal relationships we should be able to take that snooze.

      About kenosis. 'Loss of self' goes too far, in my view. I like the self to flourish, but the argument in this blog is that for that you need opposition from the other, empathy and openness. That is the lesson I learned from Levinas. If you call that 'self-deflation' I accept it.