Professor of Psychology, Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences
Professor of Management & Organizations
Kellogg School of Management / Relationships in Psychology

Eli Finkel is a Professor of Management and Organizations at Kellogg School of Management, with a joint appointment in Psychology. He earned his BA from Northwestern and his PhD from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has been published in 120+ scholarly papers in leading outlets, and has published Op-Ed pieces in the New York Times and feature articles in Scientific American. His research interests center around three key elements of trust in a romantic relationship: predictability, dependability and faith. He examines how redemption is realized subsequent to a trust breach throughout various stages, from the initial apology to the way the breach is recalled years later.

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Videos by Eli Finkel

How Trust Translates from Personal to Workplace Relationships

Contributor / Eli Finkel
Eli Finkel Relationships Building Brands,Trust and Networks A lot of the essential features are similar when we talk about trust in romantic relationships, friendships, coworker relationships, and so forth.

One of the things that’s been exciting among relationship scientists is just how many different ways we need to trust our romantic partners—at least in contemporary western societies.

So, in contrast to, say, 1800 in the US, today we’re much more dependent on our spouse for a broad range of psychological needs.

It used to be that we looked to our marriage for a relatively circumscribed set of goals, and we looked to our broader family and friendship network for all sorts of emotional support.

But increasingly, especially over the last 30 or 40 years, we’ve looked to our spouse to take on a larger and larger proportion of our most important psychological needs.

For example, the size of our intimate social networks—that is, friends, families, and so forth—has gotten smaller; the amount of time we spend with those people has been reduced; and the end result of all of that is that this one person has taken on enormous significance.

And so, the extent to which we have high trust in this one person is a stronger predictor of our overall well-being in life today than it ever has been in the past.

Bumper: Three stages of trust development in romantic and work relationships—predictability, dependability, and faith.

To a large extent, we go through a similar set of stages when we think about trust with people at the workplace.

For example, when we first get to know coworkers, we are really trying to figure out, can I predict the way they’re going to behave and respond in given situations?

Then over time, we start to conclude, what sort of person is this? Is this somebody that I can trust?

And then finally, if you have a long-term relationship at the workplace with someone, you can develop this sense of faith that the person is out there today and in the future and has your best interest at heart.

Bumper: Consumers Trust Familiar and Unfamiliar Brands Differently

We talk a lot about trust in interpersonal relationships, but one of the things I’ve been interested in is trust for inanimate objects. And one of the things that we’ve explored is trust for particular brands.

In one study, we played consumers radio advertisements, and at the end of the advertisement, we played a disclaimer—all the nice content comes first, then the disclaimer, and then the not nice content comes at the disclaimer.

But we manipulated whether the disclaimer comes at the regular pace that people talk or whether it’s super fast.

Now, the logic behind that manipulation is that fast disclaimers are cues that maybe somebody’s trying to pull a fast one on you, are cues to untrustworthiness.

And what we found is that consumers tended to be less trusting of the product that used the fast disclaimer relative to the normal-paced disclaimer, and they had lower purchase intention toward that product.

But in this research, we manipulated a second variable: Is this a product that you’re familiar with and already have some trust in, or at least some respect for? Or is this a new unknown product?

And we found something interesting. This fast disclaimer speed—the tendency for consumers to distrust you if you use a fast disclaimer—applies only to the unknown product.

And this harkens back to the idea of trust as faith—once you have gotten to know a brand particularly well, you’re no longer monitoring if they’re engaging in potentially untrustworthy behavior.

And so, even though they’re doing this fast disclaimer—this relatively untrustworthy thing that they might be trying to pull over on you—you stop attending to those sorts of cues.

In contrast, if you don’t know the brand and you’re monitoring the behavior of the brand or of the advertisement for the brand to try to develop an understanding, is this brand worthy of my trust?—that’s when you see that the fast disclaimers tend to be punished.

The Most Important Ingredient in a Healthy Relationship: A Psychologist’s Perspective

Contributor / Eli Finkel
Eli Finkel Relationships Vulnerability,Reciprocity,Distrust Sometimes when we think about trust, we think about whether we’d be willing to loan 20 dollars to a friend.

When relationships researchers think about trust, we think about much higher stakes than that. We think about contexts in which our emotional well-being is fundamentally dependent upon the behavior of another person.

So, what is a close relationship? Well, Hal Kelley and his colleagues have defined the close relationship as “one characterized by strong, frequent, and diverse interdependence that lasts over a considerable period of time.”

And it turns out that if you want to predict whether people have meaningful, happy lives, the single most important factor tends to be the quality of our close relationships.

The problem is that sustaining high-quality close relationships is difficult. In particular, it requires that we’re willing to make ourselves be vulnerable to somebody who could really hurt us.

Trust is arguably the most important ingredient in a healthy close relationship—it’s the ingredient that allows us to prioritize the well-being of the relationship over the protection of the self.

When relationships researchers study trust, we tend to be especially interested in cases where the stakes are especially high—cases where, for example, we’re looking to the same person to meet the large majority of our psychological needs, our emotional needs, our monetary needs, even our co-parenting needs.

It’s scary to be vulnerable in close relationships, so early on, we tend to calibrate our level of vulnerability to our partner’s actual behavior.

Eventually, if we can establish high trust, we stop monitoring our partner’s behavior because we’re confident that he or she is willing to make sacrifices and take care of us when we need it.

2 Indicators That You Can Develop Strong Trust in a Relationship

Close relationships researchers tend to emphasize two factors in determining whether we’ll develop strong trust over time: the first is how our partner behaves in diagnostic situations, and the second is the extent to which we feel that we are worthy of being loved.

Let’s talk first about diagnostic situations. Ironically, it’s hard to develop trust in a partner unless our interests diverge from one another.

If our interests always align, we can’t know whether our partner’s nice treatment toward us results from the partner’s own preferences for him or herself versus a willingness to make sacrifices to benefit us—that is, we can’t know whether our partner’s behavior is an indicator of his or her trustworthiness.

When our interests diverge, we can witness our partner make sacrifices for us, which is indeed the central ingredient that we need in order to develop strong levels of trust.

Situations in which our interests diverge are called “diagnostic situations” because they allow us to diagnose the extent to which we can trust our partner.

A second factor that’s crucial in determining whether we can develop strong trust over time involves our trait level of insecurity.

For example, people who have relatively low self-esteem tend to feel unlovable, and consequently, they have a hard time coming to believe that their partner actually loves them.

This skepticism causes them to misperceive rejection when it’s not intended and to dismiss their partner’s expressions of affection, ultimately undermining the quality of the relationship.

Major theories of close relationships, including John Bowlby’s attachment theory, suggest that our tendencies to trust other people derives in large part from how responsive our caregivers were when we were children.

Those of us fortunate enough to have responsive caregivers develop an understanding about the world that we are loveable and that other people are reliable, and therefore, we find it easier to trust people throughout our lifetimes.

Arthur Schopenhauer considers the case of porcupines who wish to huddle together to remain warm but are concerned about getting too close because they could be stabbed by one another’s quills.

This is an excellent parable for intimacy in relationships: We can keep our distance to make sure that we’re not vulnerable to pain, but it’s pretty cold when we’re out there on our own. Or we can draw close in order to keep warm, but it’s pretty scary when we’re vulnerable.

Trust, if we can develop it, helps us resolve this porcupine dilemma by allowing us to enjoy the warmth of closeness while avoiding the perils of vulnerability.

How We Understand Trust in Romantic Relationships: Key Findings

Contributor / Eli Finkel
Eli Finkel Relationships Trust Formation,Definitions,Breaches If we’re focusing on the modern relationship signs of trust, the best place to start is probably with John Bowlby’s seminal monograph on attachment theory.

In this monograph, published in 1969, Bowlby observes that when we’re infants, we are extremely dependent on our caregivers for sensitive support.

If our parents provide us with sensitive support, we tend to conclude that we ourselves are worthy of love and that our significant others can be trusted. If we’re not treated with sensitive support, we draw just the opposite conclusions.

To an extent, we carry these lessons with us throughout the rest of our lives.

Three Dimensions of Trust in Romantic Relationships

The first major theoretical and empirical piece laying out the framework for understanding trust in romantic relationships was Rempel, Holmes, and Zanna’s 1985 paper.

Rempel and colleagues argued that there are three dimensions underlying trust, and they built a self-report instrument to assess each of these three dimensions.

The first dimension is predictability, and they assess it with items like “I am familiar with the patterns of behavior my partner has established, and I can rely on him or her to behave in certain ways.”

The second dimension is dependability, which they assess with items like “I can count on my partner to be concerned about my welfare.”

The third dimension is faith, which they assess with items like “Though times may change and the future is uncertain, I know my partner will always be ready and willing to offer me strength and support.”

The reason why faith is so crucial is that we can never know what situations we’re going to face—whether our partner might encounter some temptation or whether circumstances might get difficult financially and so forth.

And so, it’s really when we have faith in the partner that we’re willing to take this flying leap and make ourselves vulnerable despite all of that uncertainty about the future.

Importance of Diagnostic Situations

Four years later, John Holmes and John Rempel published another piece, a chapter that really served as the first major theory of trust in romantic relationships.

Perhaps the most important thing that it did was it introduced the idea of the diagnostic situation.

If we watch our partner behave nicely to us in a way that happens to be what he or she would like to do anyway, it’s not diagnostic about whether we can trust our partner, whether he’s behaving in a way that warrants us developing faith in him or her.

It’s really when we see situations where the partner is willing to make a sacrifice for us that we can then conclude that we are safe depending upon our partner, that we in fact trust our partner.

Whitewashing the Past Enhances Trust

One of the major ways in which our level of trust in our partner influences our lives is that it biases our memories in ways that benefit our relationship.

In a project that we spearheaded here at Northwestern, we were interested in how trust can bias people’s memories of actual relationship events.

Building on the idea that trust is ultimately a leap of faith, a determination that we can rely on our partner in the future, we explored the idea that trust makes us misremember our partner’s transgressions in a way that makes them seem more benign than they really were.

We conducted four longitudinal studies where we had people record in real time each instance in which their partner did something that hurt or offended them.

What this method allowed us to do is to compare the extent to which they felt hurt and angry at the time with their memory two weeks, four weeks, eight weeks later about how much they thought they were hurt at the time.

What was interesting in these results is that the extent to which we trust our partner predicts our misremembering of the past in a way that makes us more fulfilled in our relationship.

"To be clear, this isn’t forgiveness in the sense that you say, “Well, I’m not as upset as I used to be”; this is a whitewashing of the past. You are in fact misremembering your own personal experience about how you felt at the time of the event.

And it is precisely this whitewashing that helps trust make our relationship as strong as possible.