I’m going to be talking about trust from the perspective of psychology, neuroscience, and psychophysiology.
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?
Now, despite the straightforward manner in which trust is studied in these fields, trust is really a multifaceted concept in these fields as well.
BUMPER: Key Components of Trust
So, drawing on a definition that actually comes from outside of psychology, from McKnight and Chervany in the information sciences, we can think about trust as consisting of four different things: benevolence, integrity, competence and predictability.
Benevolence essentially means, is this person a kind person? Integrity means, is this person an ethical person?
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?
BUMPER: Neural and Hormonal Bases for Trust
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?
BUMPER: Measuring Trust
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.