How do we choose to trust?

March 14, 2007 at 9:00 am 4 comments

Max konked outIn an earlier post, I explored trust. I want to further this exploration by looking at what the decision-making process might be when we decide to trust. I am confining myself to interpersonal trust – a future post will deal with trust in civic society.

In deciding to trust, a major factor must be the match between the trustor and trustee’s personal characteristics, interests and values – like attracts like as they say and there is resonance. The situation that the trustor and trustee find themselves in must also colour the decision – how high or low is the risk? how likely is it that an act of betrayal or abuse of trust might occur? the trustee’s integrity will come into play here.

There are aspects that are in the trustor’s control – who to trust and a willingness to accept the conditions under which trust is placed ie the risk. Who to trust is perhaps only partly in the trustor’s control. A decision or judgement has to be made about the trustee’s personal qualities and their trustworthiness. This has to be based on repeated behavioural patterns or visible indications demonstrating that the trustee can be relied on. Can you trust someone if you have not witnessed evidence of that person’s trustworthiness? and if so, what would that decision be based on – intuition, hope, sheer force of will? can one trust a complete stranger?

There seems to be a point of tension here – to trust denotes a rational reflective process of deciding who to trust; but trust also involves an element of risk that negates to a certain extent rationality. The trustor is in a position of vulnerability and must assume the risk that the trustee is untrustworthy or will betray the trust.

Everyday we put our trust in other people and knowledge. In earlier times, people believed the world was flat without any real evidence to show that ships didn’t actually drop off the horizon into some abyss. If a stranger rushed up and said “pink panthers exist”, do we not place our trust in that person or their statement simply because we personally have never seen a pink panther? since we don’t know this person, we presumably can’t decide to trust based on personal characteristics or repeated observable behaviour. So is the trust we might place in this person based on rationality? (which is relative: it might be rationale for you to believe in pink panthers, but not for me, at least until evidence pops up to the contrary).

The decision to trust must also carry with it optimism – the trustor believes that the trustee is competent, will do the right thing, will act in the interests of the trustor. Implicit in this is the belief that the trustee has a motive for acting kindly, with care or ethically. In an earlier post, I looked at positive psychology and one’s explanatory style – if you are pessimistic you are likely not to trust and you might assign suspicious motives to others; but if you have an optimistic explanatory style, you are more likely to believe that other people can be relied on because they have goodwill (and goodwill really gets us into looking at the notion of virtue – a future post!). But ongoing commitment must also be a factor – will the trustee be commited long term to the relationship and the preservation of trust?

I wonder if the notion of “value” must also arise from the relationship for the decision to be made to trust someone. Possibly entering a trusting relationship is of itself ‘value’. Or obtaining knowledge from the relationship might be considered of value.

Externality impinges on the decision to trust – what type of organisation or society one exists in must dictate whether trust is justified. A ‘blame culture’ presumably leads to low levels of trust since notions of integrity, professionalism, acting out of motives of care rather than political agendas are noteworthy by their absence. A democratic society presumably demonstrates higher levels of trust than a totalitarian one. And here is another point of tension – knowledge management relies on a foundation of trust; that people will be motivated to share; to be the trustee of others’ knowledge. But if the organisational climate is one of command/control, assigning blame and burying mistakes – then an individual’s decision to trust will be based not on an internal decision-making process but on the external reality. In such a mistrustful climate, individual trust will be withdrawn. The organisational challenge clearly involves answering this question – how can trust be recovered?

Clearly, when deciding to trust there are many dimensions involved. One that I haven’t yet explored is whether trust is simply an emotion – another post.

I’ve raised more questions for myself than answered. But I think it’s critical for knowledge management practitioners to fully understand trust in all its aspects so that ways of cultivating trust can be identified. Until my next post, have a good lie down like the rather tired collie in the photo accompanying this post :)-


Entry filed under: Knowledge Management, Reflections, Trust.

What is strategic CSR? No pain; no beauty?

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Matt Moore  |  March 24, 2007 at 6:47 am

    “There seems to be a point of tension here – to trust denotes a rational reflective process of deciding who to trust”

    I think most of our personal decisions around trusting individuals are actually unconscious. This doesn’t mean that they are necessarily irrational or that we don’t review them based on evidence. But they are generally Kleinian rather than Classical decisions.

    “Why don’t you like him?”
    “I can’t put my finger on it but he seems a bit shifty.”

    This goes some way to answering your question as to whether trust is an emotion. A decision to trust undoubtedly has an emotional component and that emotional component is itself not wholly irrational.

    You could also see trust as a Stacey-style complex responsive process. Trust is not so much stock in the bank as something continuously being recreated in a relationship between two identities. Hence its fragility.

    How can trust be recovered?

    Well, one way of getting people to trust you is to show that you trust them. This may be related to the Tit-For-Two-Tats strategy in game theory. So for senior managers it may require them to give up control to obtain a higher quality outcome. And depending on how far gone things are, it may need to start with something small & low-risk.

  • 2. thinkingshift  |  March 24, 2007 at 7:08 am

    Hi Matt

    I like your inclusion of Gary Klein’s power of intuition – in a future post, I want to look
    at trust from an intuitive/emotional perspective.

    And your comment about Stacey – trust as a complex responsive process – I think is
    also very valid.

    Thx for visiting my blog :)-

    Kim Sbarcea

  • 3. Matt Moore  |  March 24, 2007 at 10:02 am

    Kim – It’s a very interesting post so I couldn’t resist the opportunity to respond.

    If trust is a complex responsive process between identities based on a first-fit pattern match by those identities of each other then the power of the law or explicit regulation is that it attempts to stabilise:
    – What the identities are.
    – What the first-fit pattern match expectations should be.
    – The processes by which the identities may interact in the future.

    So therefore regulatory pressure is required when:
    – Identities may be unclear/blurred.
    – There are insufficient patterns in the system to set expectations.
    – The interaction processes between identities are highly variable.

    The extent to which the regulatory ideal can shape these three areas will define how successful it is.

    Traumatic organisational change impacts all 3 of these areas:
    – Creating new roles & changing the scope of existing ones.
    – The roles have no precedent for co-operation.
    – How these roles develop with each other is not fully understood.

    Regulation is not the only way of impacting these three factors. Multiple interventions around identities, patterns & processes are possible and probably necessary.

    In returning to the title of your post, the answer would be: “It depends on my previous experiences with that particular identity or the patterns I have that are most similar to it.” And this will be impacted by the identity I occupy in those previous patterns.

    So for example: If my previous experience of estate agents has been good as a seller but poor as a buyer and I am looking to buy a house then my trust of estate agents will be low. I will make a pattern match based on experience. However if this new estate agent does things that demonstrates they are trustworthy in the process of inter-relating (e.g. open about any potential problems with the property, does not gazump me) then that pattern may change in the future.

    Hmmmm. Any thoughts?

  • 4. thinkingshift  |  March 24, 2007 at 9:41 pm

    great reflections Matt….I will be returning to the notion of intuition and patterns in a future
    post by incorporating Klein’s concepts. Until then…..more thinking on my part :)-


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