The Nature of Trust: A Philosopher’s Perspective

Examining the nature of trust from a new perspective can shed important insights.

Foundations

Contributor / Sanford Goldberg

Professor of Philosophy
Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences / Philosophy

Philosophers are interested in the nature, rationality, and ethics of trust. Each category is highly debated and raises thorny questions. For example, most philosophers believe that trust is a kind of reliance on another person that, when violated, provokes not only disappointment but a feeling of betrayal. But why? And, in the ethical realm, does our obligation to trust a loved one require us to ignore evidence that casts doubt on her trustworthiness?

Transcript

Trust is a topic that’s of great interest to philosophers. In philosophy, two subfields typically look at trust. One of them is ethics, and the other is the theory of knowledge, which is also known as “epistemology.”

The topics that philosophers look into, when they look into trust, are three: the nature of trust, the rationality of trust, and the ethics of trust. And, in this brief segment, what I thought I would do is run through all three.

When it comes to the nature of trust, philosophers are very interested in distinguishing trust from dependence and reliance. It’s a controversial issue whether trust is actually distinct from dependence or reliance, or if it’s just a type of dependence or reliance.

Most philosophers think that it’s a type of reliance, and the question is, how does it differ from mere reliance on someone?

And one of the key insights — if in fact it is an insight — of philosophers who think about trust is that trust is a kind of reliance that gives rise not merely to disappointment but to a sense of betrayal when one’s trust is violated.

And really, philosophers interested in the nature of trust ask what kind of thing is trust, such that violations of that trust yield a sense of betrayal rather than mere disappointment?

Philosophers interested in the nature of trust also are interested in the varieties of trust. And here, they distinguish between main types. The main type is what we would call “practical trust” — that’s trusting someone or some institution to do something or to be a certain way, or to refrain from doing something or to refrain from being a certain way.

The other variety of trust is what philosophers call “intellectual” or “epistemic trust,” which is the kind of trust that you have in a person or a source of information when you trust it, when you rely on it for the truth in what it tells you.

Many people think that epistemic or intellectual trust is a special case of practical trust, and that is an issue that philosophers will discuss at great length in a variety of different ways.

When it comes to the rationality of trust, we need to distinguish between two types of rationality. The first type I would call “practical rationality.” Practical rationality is the sort of rationality when it’s in your interest to do something — so, it’s rational when it’s in your interest to do something.

You might ask, when is it practically rational to trust? And here, the answer will again depend on what kind of cost-benefit analysis you do. Suppose that if you trust someone, then he or she will be your friend. That’s obviously a good thing, and that goes on the benefit side.

Suppose that you’ll have lots of friends. That makes it very, very good to trust. These are the kinds of considerations that might actually make it practically rational to trust.

But you can take a different attitude towards the rationality of trust. Suppose what you’re primarily interested in is acquiring true beliefs and avoiding false beliefs. Less interested in things like friendship or other kinds of goodies, instead you’re interested in acquiring true beliefs and avoiding false beliefs.

There, it’s clear that whether or not trusting someone will make them your friend is irrelevant to the kind of belief you want to acquire. Here, we need to talk about epistemic rationality.

What are the conditions under which trust is epistemically rational? Here, philosophers divide into two main camps. One of the camps holds that it’s rational to trust another person — so, to believe what they say — only if you have good independent reasons to regard them as trustworthy.

This view — which in philosophical circles is known as “reductionism” — holds that it’s only when you have those good reasons that it’s rational to trust someone. Those reasons can take a variety of forms.

Perhaps you know someone’s track record. They’re highly reliable, and they’ve been highly reliable in the past, so they’re likely to be reliable on this occasion. Perhaps they look sincere and competent. Those can be reasons to trust.

Other philosophers disagree. They think that you don’t need positive reasons to trust another person; what’s necessary instead is that you lack reasons to regard them as untrustworthy.

They hold, for example, that it’s rational to trust another speaker, in the same way that it’s rational to trust your own perceptual resources, when you don’t have reasons to regard the relied-upon source as untrustworthy — that is, when you don’t have reasons to think that the person with whom you’re interacting is actually unreliable or incompetent or insincere.

That view is known as “antireductionism,” and that’s the opposing view of the reductionist view about the rationality of trust.

I move on now to the final issue that philosophers explore when we think about the nature of trust, and that is the ethics of trust. I take it that it’s uncontroversial to think that we all have ethical obligations to be trustworthy.

For example, we all take it, I suppose, that you shouldn’t lie and you shouldn’t say things for which you don’t have adequate evidence. That’s not particularly controversial.

The more controversial and interesting question arises when we ask whether we have ethical obligations to trust others. Why would you think that you do have ethical obligations to trust others?

Some philosophers remind us, for example, that friendships or loving relationships can require trust on the part of the two people involved. For example, if you have a friend but don’t trust her, that may well undermine the friendship.

Or if you have a partner or a spouse and you don’t trust him, that may undermine the relationship that you have.

These philosophers use these kinds of relationships to suggest that we are sometimes under ethical obligations to trust others.

There’s one case that philosophers use to think about the question about the relationship between the ethics of trust and the rationality of trust. Take a case in which a child of yours or perhaps a very good friend is accused of a horrific crime. And he or she swears to you that he or she is innocent — not guilty as charged.

And now imagine that the evidence that’s out there is rather substantial and suggests that the person is in fact guilty. If we think that there are ethical obligations to trust our friends or our children, then we reach an interesting conclusion that it may be ethically required of us to believe something that flies in the face of the evidence.

And that is grounds for some interesting philosophical discussion.

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We expect certain things from our products. We expect companies to behave in certain kinds of ways, both in the production and also in the marketing of these products.

These are what I would call “normative expectations.” They’re expectations that aren’t predictions; they’re more in the vicinity of standards that we impose on the people with whom we interact. And, in that sense, they’re normative rather than predictive.

They certainly can be unreasonable. If you think about, for example, a boss — a boss might normatively expect all sorts of things regarding his or her employees. But if it goes beyond what is reasonable to expect of his or her employees — for example, the amount of hours worked, what can be accomplished in a given day, and so forth — those are what I would call “unreasonable normative expectations.”

It’s a good question how to deal with people who have unreasonable normative expectations. My impression is that a good part of life with other people is negotiating what counts as reasonable in these normative expectations.

And I think what to do will differ depending on the sort of circumstance that you’re in when you’re dealing with somebody with unreasonable normative expectations.

I think they clearly can be influenced, and they frequently do change. This is the stuff of culture; this is what our culture gives us. If you like, it’s our cultural inheritance.

So, depending on what culture you happen to be raised in, that will largely affect the kinds of normative expectations you have of other people and when you have those normative expectations of others.

So, how to influence these? That’s a question for culture management. If you find that there are normative expectations that are not, from your perspective, reasonable, you ought to try to affect those parts of culture that underwrite those expectations, that justify those expectations, and so forth.

After all, these are the sorts of things that are not visible with the naked eye but nevertheless are profound in their impact on how we relate to one another.

So, I can only imagine if a leader isn’t sensitive to these things, he or she is not going to be fully successful.

It’s a very, very complicated and delicate negotiation when two parties come to a situation with different normative expectations. And unfortunately, there’s no simple answer about how to do that; it’s a matter simply of negotiation.

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If you think about our perceptions of another’s reputation, that’s really a kind of perception of how trustworthy they are. Do they do what they say they’ll do? When they tell us something, is it reliable, something that can be depended upon?

And I would say that there are two sources of information that we have. One source is whatever information that we happen to have on the particular person or company — the evidence that we’ve collected over time. And that can include evidence of what other people have said about this organization.

But, in addition, I think we’re greatly aided by our society’s institutional ways of ensuring and enforcing trustworthiness in others.

For example, if you happen to live in a community where being trustworthy is extremely highly valued and being untrustworthy is extremely disvalued, that will give individuals with whom you interact a great motive to be trustworthy, whereas if you live in other communities where those sorts of things aren’t valued or perhaps not enforced with the same regularity, that also can affect other people’s trustworthiness, and so have an impact on your perception of their trustworthiness.

So, in addition to your own onboard resources — the evidence that you have — you also have your society and its practices of generating and enforcing trustworthiness in its members.
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Sanford Goldberg Philosophy Breaches,Definitions,Government,Reputation Management,Social Psychology Philosophers are very interested in the nature of trust. And, in this brief segment, what I’d like to do is try to give a taxonomy of the variety of positions that philosophers have taken on that nature.

In order to do so, I’m going to make one simplifying assumption, which itself is not uncontroversial but is widely shared, which is the assumption that trust is a kind of reliance: to trust someone is to rely on them in a certain kind of way.

And the question that philosophers ask is, what is the type of reliance that constitutes trust?

So, let’s think about trust as follows: to trust someone to do something is to rely on them to do it and to do so out of a certain attitude towards the proposition that they will do it for the right reasons.

If you think of that as the basic nature of trust, the philosophical questions are two: What is the right attitude? And what are the right reasons? And you can think of philosophical disputes about the nature of trust as disputes along one of those two dimensions.

Let’s begin by focusing first on the attitude question. If to trust someone is to rely on them out of an attitude that you take towards the proposition that they’ll do what you trust them to do for the right reasons, the question is, what is the attitude that you have towards the proposition that they’ll do it for the right reasons?

This view derives from a paper by Diego Gambetta entitled “Can We Trust Trust?” And according to Gambetta, we believe that people will do things for the right reasons, and it’s that belief that underwrites our reliance on them.

I call this the “belief view.” This view came under scrutiny among philosophers in a very influential 1986 paper by Annette Baier entitled “Trust and Antitrust.”

She disagreed with the belief view and thought that the attitude central to trust couldn’t be just believing that the person will do what she’s trusted to do for the right reasons.

The problem with the belief view, according to Baier, was two-fold: first, it failed to distinguish trust from mere reliance, and secondly (and perhaps more importantly), it failed to make sense of the idea that when you trust someone and your trust is violated, you feel a sense of betrayal rather than mere disappointment.

And, in fact, that thought that the violation of trust occasions a sense of betrayal, not mere disappointment, has led many philosophers, after Baier, to think that the belief view is false.

A second view, again concerning the attitude that’s central to trust, is what I would call the “affective attitude view.” This view is owed to a philosopher by the name Karen Jones, who wrote a paper entitled “Trust as Affective Attitude.”

And what she wanted to try to capture was the idea that there is an emotional flavor to trusting. So, her thought was that the attitude central to trust wasn’t mere belief but was something like a felt optimism towards the proposition that the person will do what she’s trusted to do for the right reasons.

That view too has come under some scrutiny. And an objection derives from a 1960 paper by the philosopher Horsburgh entitled “The Ethics of Trust,” suggesting that there are cases in which we trust even though we feel no optimism about the likelihood that the person will do as we’re trusting her to do.

The sort of trust that Horsburgh talked about was what he called “therapeutic trust.” These are cases in which you trust someone not because you’re optimistic that they’ll do as you trust them to do but because you’re hoping that they will recognize that you’re trusting them to do this and that itself will get them to do as you trust them to do.

This sort of therapeutic trust doesn’t conform to the attitude that the affective account lays down. Nevertheless, many philosophers continue to think that there is an affective attitude towards trust, and some have suggested that the best way to think about therapeutic trust, cases where it seems as though there’s no such attitude, are as exceptions to a more general rule.

Cases of the therapeutic trust kind have become interesting to philosophers for another reason, explored at length in Phillip Pettit’s 1996 paper, “The Cunning of Trust.”

Pettit argued that in these kinds of cases, where you trust someone in the hope that their recognition of being trusted will actually make them trustworthy, both gives them a reason to be trustworthy and gives you a reason to believe them — to believe that they’re trustworthy.

So, these kinds of cases have become interesting in their own right.

In reaction to these kinds of cases and in defense of the affective attitude view, two recent papers have suggested that the attitude of optimism is in fact appropriate in all cases of trust that aren’t of the sort that we call therapeutic trust.

For example, Karen Jones in a recent paper entitled “Trust and Terror” and Victoria McGeer in a paper entitled “Trust, Hope and Empowerment” have argued that in all cases of trust that aren’t therapeutic trust, this sort of optimism is in fact appropriate.

A third view about the relevant sort of attitude that constitutes trust is owed to Richard Holton in a paper entitled “Deciding to Trust.” He calls this view the “participant stance view”: to trust someone is to take a participant stance towards them.

The attitude that you have towards the proposition that they’ll do what you trust them to do for the right reason is the attitude of expecting them to do so, with the disposition to feel a sense of betrayal if they don’t.

That view, however, appears to assume one of the things that we would like our theory to explain — namely, why it is that a sense of betrayal is appropriate when one’s trust is violated.

This brings us to the fourth view about the sort of attitude that constitutes trust, a view that’s known as the “normative expectation view.”

To trust someone is to normatively expect them to do what you trust them to do for the right reasons, where to normatively trust someone is to impose a standard on them where you regard them as being such that they ought to do it.

This view, which might be seen as a special case of either the belief view or the participant stance view, has been developed in Walker’s recent book entitled Moral Repair.

Two excellent resources for philosophical approaches to trust are Carolyn McLeod’s entry trust in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Judith Simon’s entry trust in the Oxford Bibliographies online.

I, myself, have relied heavily in this presentation on those two resources.
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And in these fields and subfields, trust is studied in a fairly straightforward manner: People want to know, and researchers want to know, under what conditions do people trust each other, and what are the factors that people use to determine whether or not to trust someone?

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Competence means, does this person have the ability to do what needs to be done? And finally, predictability means, does this person behave in a way that I can consistently forecast?

The key question that people want to know about in these fields is, how do people judge whether someone or another entity is friend or foe? What are the dimensions that people use in judging whether someone is trustworthy or not?

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Trust is also studied in the subfields of neuroscience and psychophysiology, where these fields take psychological questions and simply ask, what are the neural or hormonal or physiological underpinnings of psychological phenomena?

The basic questions that psychology, neuroscience and psychophysiology are trying to answer are essentially twofold: One is, how do people decide whether or not to trust another person? What are the characteristics of the target? What are the situational determinants that lead someone to trust another person or not?

And second, a more recent question that people have gotten really interested in these fields is, how automatic is trust? How quickly do we make the decision to trust another person?

So, one of the debates that predominates psychology is the degree to which trust truly is automatic — that is, how quickly do we judge another person as trustworthy or untrustworthy.

A second debate in this field focuses on a much more specific topic, which is the topic of, what is oxytocin’s role in guiding trust?

Oxytocin is this hormone that’s been implicated in all sorts of behaviors related to social bonding and affiliation.

And work in the early 21st century by Paul Zak and colleagues determined that administering oxytocin to people (that is, increasing people’s oxytocin) increased their willingness to trust people.

But more recent research has questioned, how much is oxytocin actually solely positive in nature? Is it really this “love drug” that people like to refer to it as?

Another questions is, how much are the studies that show the role of oxytocin and trust, how much are those studies able to replicate when administered time and time again?

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How people measure trust and trusting behavior in psychology and neuroscience and psychophysiology is very straightforward. Often, it simply consists of asking people, “How much do you trust this person, on a one-to-seven scale where one is not at all and seven is very much?”

So, a typical study would present people with various targets — maybe targets that they are just viewing the face of, maybe targets that they’ve interacted with — and then the study would ask people, “How much do you trust this person?”

Other research uses classic economic games. There’s one game that’s known as the “investment game,” or the “trust game,” that can actually measure trusting behavior.

So, within the field of psychology and its associated fields of neuroscience and psychophysiology, the questions that we’re asking about trust are really relatively simple: How do people decide and how quickly do people decide whether or not to trust another person?

However, the way that trust can be conceptualized is incredibly multifaceted.

So, trust might mean trust in the predictability of someone, trust in the warmth or benevolence of someone, trust in the integrity of someone, or trust in the competence of someone to get things done.

Other pages in Videos:

Pages in The Trust Project at Northwestern University