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Trust (social behavior)

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Trust is a relationship of reliance. A trusted party is presumed to seek to fulfill policies, ethical codes, law and their previous promises. When trust breakdown it can be replaced by suspicion

Trust does not need to involve belief in the good character, vices, or morals of the other party. Persons engaged in a criminal activity usually trust each other to some extent. Also trust does not need to include an action that you and the other party are mutually engaged in. Trust is a prediction of reliance on an action, based on what a party knows about the other party. Trust is a statement about what is otherwise unknown -- for example, because it is far away, cannot be verified, or is in the future.


In the social sciences, the subtleties of trust are a subject of ongoing research. In sociology (and psychology) the degree to which one party trusts another is a measure of belief in the honesty, benevolence and competence of the other party. Based on the most recent research, a failure in trust may be forgiven more easily if it is interpreted as a failure of competence rather than a lack of benevolence or honesty.

From this perspective, trust is a mental state, which cannot be measured directly. Confidence in the results of trusting may be measured through behavior, or alternatively, one can measure self-reported trust (with all the caveat surrounding that method). Trust may be considered a moral choice[How to reference and link to summary or text], or at least a heuristic, allowing the human to deal with complexities that outgo rationalistic reasoning. In this case, machine-human trust is meaningless, because computers have no moral sense and rely on rational computations. Any trust in a device under this characterization is computer-mediated trust of the user of the machine in the designer and creator of the device; who has implemented the rational rules into the device. Francis Fukuyama and Tyler are academics who advocate this conception of trust – as moral and not directly observable.

A second perspective in social theory comes from the classic Foundations of Social Theory by James S. Coleman. Coleman offers a four-part definition:

  1. Placement of trust allows actions that otherwise are not possible (i.e. trust allows actions to be conducted based on incomplete information on the case in hand).
  2. The person in whom trust is placed (trustee) is trustworthy, then the trustor will be better off than if he or she had not trusted. Conversely, if the trustee is not trustworthy, then the trustor will be worse off than if he or she had not trusted (this is reminiscent of a classical prisoner's dilemma).
  3. Trust is an action that involves the voluntary placement of resources (physical, financial, intellectual, or temporal) at the disposal of the trustee with no real commitment from the trustee (again prisoner's dilemma).
  4. A time lag exists between the extension of trust and the result of the trusting behavior.

The strength of Coleman's definition is that it allows for discussion of trust behavior. These discussions have been particularly useful in reasoning about human-computer trust, and trust behaviors.

Modern scholars trying to bring together issues of trusted systems, computer security, trust and technology include Jeroen van den Hoven, Helen Nissenbaum, Deborah Johnson, Jean Camp, and Ed Gerck.

A critical element in studies of trust behavior is power. One who is in a position of dependence cannot be said to trust another in a moral sense, but can be defined as trusting another in the most strict behavioral sense. Trusting another party when one is compelled to do so is sometimes called reliance, to indicate that the belief in benevolence and competence may be absent, while the behaviors are present. Others refer only to coercion.

Coleman's definition does not account for the distinction between trust(worthiness) as a moral attribute and trustworthiness as mere reliability. It is Annette Baier (Ethics, 1987) who characterizes contexts of trust as structures of interaction in which moral obligations act upon the trustees.

The substantive conflict in the social sciences is whether trust is entirely internal, and only confidence is observable, or whether trust behaviors (and self reported levels of trust) can meaningfully measure trust in the absence of coercion. Note however that many languages (e.g. Dutch or German) do not distinguish between the words trust and confidence, which is complicating this issue. The distinction between trust and confidence is an unsolved issue in current trust/confidence research.

In general, trust is essential as Social institutions (governments), economies, and communities require trust to function. Therefore trust and altruism are areas of study for economists, although these concepts go beyond strict rational economics.


In psychology, trust is integral to the idea of social influence: it is easier to influence or persuade someone who is trusting. The notion of trust is increasingly adopted to predict acceptance of behaviors by others, institutions (e.g. government agencies) and objects such as machines. However, once again perception of honesty, competence and value similarity (slightly similar to benevolence) are essential. Once trust is lost, by obvious violation of one of these three determinants, it is very hard to regain trust. Thus there is a clear a-symmetry in building versus destruction of trust. Hence being and acting trustworthy should be considered the only sure way to maintain a trust level.

Increasingly much research has been done on the notion of trust and its social implications:

  • Barbara Misztal in her book[1] attempts to combine all notions of trust together. She points out three basic things that trust does in the lives of people: It makes social life predictable, it creates a sense of community, and it makes it easier for people to work together.
  • In the context of sexual trust Riki Robbins[2] describes four stages of trust:
  • In the context of Information Theory Ed Gerck defines and contrasts trust with social functions such as [3] power, surveillance, and accountability:

See also


  1. Barbara Misztal, Trust in Modern Societies: The Search for the Bases of Social Order, Polity Press, ISBN 0-7456-1634-8
  2. Riki Robbins, Betrayed!: How You Can Restore Sexual Trust and Rebuild Your Life, Adams Media Corporation, ISBN 1-55850-848-1
  3. Ed Gerck, in Trust Points, Digital Certificates: Applied Internet Security by J. Feghhi, J. Feghhi and P. Williams, Addison-Wesley, ISBN 0-20-130980-7, 1998.

External links

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