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

Foundations

Contributor / Eli Finkel

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

Being vulnerable in a relationship today involves the hope that many different kinds of needs will be met by just one person, and that is no small display of trust. That trust becomes even more meaningful when interests diverge in a relationship, and there is opportunity to see if the person you’re trusting is willing to look out for your best interest even at the expense of their own. With a poignant analogy, Finkel emphasizes how developing trust in the right person can resolve the dilemma between falling prey to vulnerability and being isolated.

Transcript

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.

Keep up with the latest insights on trust

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How We Understand Trust in Romantic Relationships: Key Findings

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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.
The mall is a good place to see an established buyer-seller relationship.

3 Components of Trust in Buyer-Seller Relationships: A Marketer’s Perspective

Foundations
Contributor / Kent Grayson
Kent Grayson Marketing Breaches,Definitions,Economic Exchange,Legal Guarantees,Mergers and Acquisitions,Regulation,Vulnerability The first thing that people think about when they think about marketing is advertising because that’s the primary way that companies communicate with customers.

And because of that, a lot of people think that if you study marketing, you probably study advertising. And there are marketing researchers who do study advertising. But there are also marketing researchers who study a lot of other things.

And a common interest that unifies all marketing researchers is not an interest in advertising but an interest in what makes economic exchange possible, an interest in the conditions that facilitate economic exchange.

By economic exchange I mean any buyer-seller relationship. So, it could be a relationship between a consumer-products firm and a shopper in a grocery store. It could be a raw-material supplier and an automobile manufacturer. It could be a client and a lawyer. It could be a lemonade stand and a neighbor.

Any buyer-seller relationship like that, marketing researchers are interested in, what factors facilitate that exchange, make it happen, make sure that the buyer and seller are happy at the end? And also, what factors might hinder that exchange?

So, among people who study marketing, there is a bunch of us who study trust. And what’s interesting about trust and trust in marketing is that trust can be broken. We can get burned by trust. And for me, one of the most interesting things is understanding how we as consumers navigate this minefield of the possibility that trust might be broken.

One of the key things that makes it possible for trust to get broken in economic exchanges is this thing called “information asymmetry.” Information asymmetry refers to the fact that buyers know more about themselves than the sellers do, and sellers know more about themselves than buyers do.

And buyers and sellers can take advantage of that information asymmetry and create conditions where they get more out of the exchange than maybe they deserve. But let’s look at information asymmetry as a problem from the buyer’s perspective to start with.

So, let’s say you go into the grocery store, and you see on the shelf a product that promises to clean your clothes if you just hang up the article of clothing and you spray it with this bottle three times. And they claim that it’s going to wash your clothes just as well as in a washing machine.

The thing is, you know that when you buy that product, you’re not going to know if it’s going to work until after you give the supermarket its money, after you drive home, and after you try it on maybe a few articles of clothing to make sure that it doesn’t fade certain clothing or stain certain clothing.

And, on the other hand, the company knows a lot more about how well it works and under what conditions it works and under what conditions it doesn’t work — because no product is perfect. And they may take advantage of that.

They may put only in the fine print that it doesn’t work on jeans or it doesn’t work on cotton, or they may create a formulation that makes it look like your clothes are clean, smell like they are clean, but it actually doesn’t clean as well as a washing machine does.

So, when you as a buyer are about to make that purchase, you have to have a level of trust in the purchase and in the person selling the product. And marketing researchers are interested in what brings you to that point of trusting the product.

Now, the really cool thing about buyer-seller relationships and information asymmetry is the fact that it goes both ways. So, the information asymmetry is a problem for sellers as well as for buyers.

One example is, when you rent out your apartment or you do an apartment share, you’re the seller in that situation, and the buyers are the people coming in to use your apartment. Now, you’re not going to know what they’re doing in your apartment. There is information asymmetry there.

They may use it in ways that you don’t want them to use it, or they may break something without you knowing — you might not find out until later. In business-to-business relationships, if you’re a supplier selling to a manufacturer, they may agree to, for example, pay you in 90 days. They do a big contract with you for a year, and they agree to pay you in 90 days.

But after you work with them for a while, you realize — they’re not actually paying you in 90 days. And they know that you’re not necessarily going to break off that relationship, and they’ve taken advantage of information asymmetry.

So, marketing researchers who study trust are interested in how buyers and sellers can think about all these questions, can navigate all these problems, to minimize these concerns about information asymmetry. And trust is one way that they can do that.

So, as you look across research that’s done by marketing researchers on trust, it comes really in two types. The first type is more psychological in orientation. This research looks at how people think or feel or attitudes towards trust, and how those attitudes towards trust influence their likelihood of exchange or keep them from wanting to exchange.

There is another group of research, or another area of research, where people take more of an economic perspective. And here, the focus is on the kinds of contracts or agreements or norms or expectations that buyers and sellers can bring to the exchange that keep people from taking advantage of information asymmetries and encourage them, or incentivize them, to live up to the expectations of the exchange.

So, what is trust? In marketing, we define trust in the way that many other disciplines define it — which is, it’s a willingness to depend on someone else to do something under conditions where they may not actually do the thing that you want them to do.

And marketers understand that willingness in terms of three dimensions — or three factors influence people’s willingness to depend on someone else to do something that they don’t necessarily have to do or they’re not required to do.

The first dimension, or the first influence, is competence, perceived competence: a belief that your exchange partner is competent to deliver the kinds of things that they’ve promised to do as part of the agreement.

The second dimension is honesty. It’s a belief that your exchange partner is going to tell the truth and keep their promises. The more you believe they’re honest, the more you trust them and the more the economic exchange is enhanced.

The last dimension of trust, or the last factor of trust, is benevolence. It’s a belief that your exchange partner will think about you at critical times in the exchange when they can use information asymmetry for their own benefit, and they’re willing to think about your needs and wants.

And they’re maybe even willing to make sacrifices because they know that making you happy in the exchange is part of making a successful exchange.

Now, these three dimensions are interrelated, but honesty and benevolence are particularly highly correlated, and it’s very hard to tease them apart because a benevolent partner is often thought to be honest, and an honest partner is often thought to be benevolent.

How Trust Translates from Personal to Workplace Relationships

Applications
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.

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Pages in The Trust Project at Northwestern University