- Helen Keller
Roy J. Lewicki
Edward C. Tomlinson
The phenomenon of trust has been extensively explored by a variety of disciplines across the social sciences, including economics, social psychology, and political science. The breadth of this literature offers rich insight, and this is noted in the common elements that appear in the definition of trust.
For example, Rousseau and her colleagues offer the following definition: "Trust is a psychological state comprising the intention to accept vulnerability based upon positive expectations of the intentions or behavior of another." Similarly, Lewicki and his colleagues describe trust as "an individual's belief in, and willingness to act on the basis of, the words, actions, and decisions of another."
The need for trust arises from our interdependence with others. We often depend on other people to help us obtain, or at least not to frustrate, the outcomes we value (and they on us). As our interests with others are intertwined, we also must recognize that there is an element of risk involved insofar as we often encounter situations in which we cannot compel the cooperation we seek. Therefore, trust can be very valuable in social interactions.
Trust has been identified as a key element of successful conflict resolution (including negotiation and mediation). This is not surprising insofar as trust is associated with enhanced cooperation, information sharing, and problem solving.
Origins and Development of Trust
Armed with a definition of trust and a description of the benefits it brings, we now turn to examine its origins and development. Theory on the origins of interpersonal trust has proceeded broadly along three fronts: (1) explaining differences in the individual propensity to trust, (2) understanding dimensions of trustworthy behavior, and (3) suggesting levels of trust development.
Individual propensity to trust
Personality theorists have developed one of the oldest theoretical perspectives on trust, and argued that some people are more likely to trust than others. Viewed as a fairly stable trait over time, trust is regarded as a generalized expectancy that other people can be relied on. This expectancy is a function of the degree to which trust has been honored in that individual's history of prior social interactions, and may have its most pronounced effect in novel or ambiguous situations. While this expectancy shapes perceptions of the character of people in general, more recent work has identified the characteristics of trustees that allow for the formation of trust and its growth to higher levels.
Dimensions of trustworthy behavior
Our trust in another individual can be grounded in our evaluation of his/her ability, integrity, and benevolence. That is, the more we observe these characteristics in another person, our level of trust in that person is likely to grow.
Ability refers to an assessment of the other's knowledge, skill, or competency. This dimension recognizes that trust requires some sense that the other is able to perform in a manner that meets our expectations.
Integrity is the degree to which the trustee adheres to principles that are acceptable to the trustor. This dimension leads to trust based on consistency of past actions, credibility of communication, commitment to standards of fairness, and the congruence of the other's word and deed.
Benevolence is our assessment that the trusted individual is concerned enough about our welfare to either advance our interests, or at least not impede them. The other's perceived intentions or motives of the trustee are most central. Honest and open communication, delegating decisions, and sharing control indicate evidence of one's benevolence.
Although these three dimensions are likely to be linked to each other, they each contribute separately to influence the level of trust in another within a relationship. However, ability and integrity are likely to be most influential early in a relationship, as information on one's benevolence needs more time to emerge. The effect of benevolence will increase as the relationship between the parties grows closer. The next section describes trust development in relationships in more detail.
Levels of trust development
Early theories of trust described it as a unidimensional phenomenon that simply increased or decreased in magnitude and strength within a relationship. However, more recent approaches to trust suggests that trust builds along a continuum of hierarchical and sequential stages, such that as trust grows to 'higher' levels, it becomes stronger and more resilient and changes in character. This is the primary perspective we adopt in the remainder of these essays.
At early stages of a relationship, trust is at a calculus-based level. In other words, an individual will carefully calculate how the other party is likely to behave in a given situation depending on the rewards for being trustworthy and the deterrents against untrustworthy behavior. In this manner, rewards and punishments form the basis of control that a trustor has in ensuring the trustee's behavioral consistency. Individuals deciding to trust the other mentally contemplate the benefits of staying in the relationship with the trustee versus the benefits of 'cheating' on the relationship, and the costs of staying in the relationship versus the costs of breaking the relationship. Trust will only be extended to the other to the extent that this cost-benefit calculation indicates that the continued trust will yield a net positive benefit. Over time, calculus-based trust (CBT) can be built as individuals manage their reputation and assure the stability of their behavior by behaving consistently, meeting agreed-to deadlines, and fulfilling promises. CBT is a largely cognitively-driven trust phenomenon, grounded in judgments of the trustees predictability and reliability.
However, as the parties come to a deeper understanding of each other through repeated interactions, they may become aware of shared values and goals. This allows trust to grow to a higher and qualitatively different level. When trust evolves to the highest level, it is said to function as identification-based trust (IBT). At this stage trust has been built to the point that the parties have internalized each other's desires and intentions. They understand what the other party really cares about so completely that each party is able to act as an agent for the other. Trust at this advanced stage is also enhanced by a strong emotional bond between the parties, based on a sense of shared goals and values. So, in contrast to CBT, IBT is a more emotionally-driven phenomenon, grounded in perceptions of interpersonal care and concern, and mutual need satisfaction.
Trust violations occur when the trustor's (i.e., the victim's) confident positive expectations of the trustee (i.e., the offender) are disconfirmed. These violations result in lower subsequent trust, and may reduce the extent to which victims of these violations cooperate with the offender. Research within organizations has shown that trust violations stifle mutual support and information sharing, and even exert negative effects on organizational citizenship behaviors, job performance, turnover, and profits.
The experience of a trust violation is likely to result in the trustor making (1) a cognitive appraisal of the situation and (2) experiencing a distressed emotional state. The cognitive appraisal refers to the victim's assignment of culpability to the offender and the evaluation of the costs associated with the violation. The emotional reaction is likely to be composed of some mixture of anger, disappointment, and/or frustration at oneself for trusting and at the offender for exploiting that trust.
We proceed to consider how violations damage interpersonal trust.
In some cases, a single trust violation may seriously damage or irreparably destroy trust. In other cases, one trust violation may not be that damaging when considered in isolation. Rather, a pattern of violations may be needed to create serious damage to the relationship. In other words, not all trust violations are created equally. So, to analyze the effect of trust violations on a relationship, we need a way to describe how much harm (cognitive and/or emotional) a given violation has created. We will broadly refer to this extent of harm as the Offense Severity, and note that as it increases, it is likely to be met with more active and extreme responses by the trustor (victim), and signal greater harm to interpersonal trust.
For example, minor offenses may be met with simply a reduced level of trust. That is, one may have simply lower trust in another in a given context. The victim will be motivated to avoid transactions with the trustee (offender) in the future, and to withhold further support and cooperation. In situations where the relationship cannot be terminated (e.g., the parties have to continue to interact or work together), the relationship continues as a hollow "shell," a facade of superficial cooperation and/or specific transactions that are tightly controlled. These are relatively passive approaches to low trust management strategies -- i.e., "Okay, you got me. I'm simply not going to trust you any more, even though we have to deal with each other."
As Offense Severity grows, however, the victim is more likely to experience stronger negative cognitive and emotional reactions, including a sense of moral outrage. Serious offenses harm trust severely, often to the point of complete destruction. These serious offenses may also stimulate the rapid growth of distrust. Accordingly, the victim is more likely to engage in more severe reactions to the trust violation, including exacting retribution, escalating the conflict, and/or terminating the relationship.
Offense Severity exists along a continuum from low to high. Offenses can be severe in several ways:
At this point, we also wish to point out that trust violations that may be very disruptive to Calculus-Based Trust (CBT) relationships may be viewed as trivial nuisances or not violations at all in Identification-Based Trust (IBT) relationships. Because the relationship itself is the basis for IBT, and because such a major emotional investment goes into creating and sustaining it, the parties are relatively more motivated to maintain them. IBT relationships can become rather resilient to trust violations as long as the violations do not challenge the underlying basis of the relationship. However, when the basis of an IBT relationship becomes called into question by a trust violation (e.g., marital infidelity), this has the potential to devastate the entire relationship.
Despite the assertions of some scholars that broken trust cannot be repaired, we draw on recent research indicating a more optimistic view. However, we caution that rebuilding trust is not as straightforward as building trust in the first place. After trust has been damaged, there are two key considerations for the victim: (1) dealing with the stress the violation imposed on the relationship, and (2) determining if future violations will occur. After a trust violation and the cognitive and affective fallout that ensues, the first critical question is, is the victim willing to reconcile? If the victim believes that the violator will not make efforts at righting the wrongs and minimizing future violations, the victim has no incentive to attempt reconciliation and restore trust.
Let us first clarify the distinction between reconciliation and forgiveness. Reconciliation occurs when both parties exert effort to rebuild a damaged relationship, and strive to settle the issues that led to the disruption of that relationship. Reconciliation is a behavioral manifestation of forgiveness, defined as a deliberate decision by the victim to surrender feelings of resentment and grant amnesty to the offender. However, it is possible to forgive someone (release him or her from responsibility for damage he/she has inflicted) without exhibiting a willingness to reconcile the relationship or trust him or her again in the future. An example may be when a battered woman forgives her abuser (as a means of coping and psychological healing), but does not allow the relationship to continue. Thus, following a trust violation, the trust cannot be rebuilt if the victim is not willing to reconcile. On the other hand, if the victim is willing to reconcile, rebuilding trust in the relationship becomes possible (although not guaranteed). We will now describe this repair process as it relates to CBT and IBT.
In CBT relationships, expectations of the other party are grounded in a cognitive appraisal of the costs and benefits involved in a given transaction, with minimal emphasis on the emotional investment in the relationship (i.e., emotional concerns are not irrelevant, but just not as central as cognitive concerns). Violations in a CBT relationship involve a focus on the exchange itself and the loss of the specific benefits the victim was relying on from the exchange. In short, in order to repair CBT, parties tend to focus on the impact (i.e., the direct consequences) of the trust violation as the primary issue to address in any repair effort.
Accordingly, it is essential for the offender to take the initiative in stimulating reconciliation, and this is most likely when the offender actually desires to rebuild trust and is skilled at perspective taking (the ability to visualize the world as it appears to someone else). It may be that there were incongruent or unclear expectations between the parties that can be quickly clarified. Alternatively, there may be some explanation or justification that places the unexpected behavior in context such that the event is no longer perceived by the victim as a violation. For example, pushing someone to the ground so a car won't hit him or her would reframe an otherwise hostile act as an act of trustworthiness. Finally, apologies and promises signal remorse and assurance for the future, respectively. These are important forms of communication that help to restore balance in the relationship and convince the victim that it will be safe to trust again in the future.
This repair may involve acts of restitution that compensate the victim for the specific consequences of a violation. Restitution also carries important symbolism in that the offender is actually trying to redeem his/her trustworthiness with concrete actions. In CBT relationships, actions may speak louder than words, so it is imperative for the offender to honor trust in subsequent interactions with tangible offerings designed to restore 'fairness' in the relationship.
Notice that while communication and action are both central elements to reconciliation and trust recovery, the repair process for CBT is dominantly a material, transactional effort. To illustrate, simply giving someone a hug after this type of violation is not likely to help, and may in fact make things worse. Tangible reparation has to occur.
In contrast, in IBT relationships, trust of the other party is grounded in the shared interests and values of the parties and their collective emotional investment in the relationship. Thus, violations may lead the victim to conclude that the parties are not as 'together' as they once may have appeared. Compared to the exchange of tangible resources in a CBT relationship, IBT relationships are more heavily grounded in intangible resources such as perceptions of mutual attraction, support and caring for each other. Therefore, in contrast to the focus on impact in CBT violations, violations of IBT lead the victim to question the intent (i.e., motives and desires) of the other party that prompted the perceived betrayal. As mentioned earlier, IBT relationships are often resilient to transactional discrepancies that would be sufficient to seriously damage a CBT relationship, as long as the identification with the other party is not called into question. Since an IBT violation threatens the very basis of identification with the other, the victim's reaction to the violation involves the feeling that he/she may no longer really 'know' the offender after all. Feelings of abandonment, estrangement, and alienation may not be uncommon.
For the offender to re-establish perceptions of his/her benevolent intent, the offender should quickly and voluntarily offer a thorough and sincere apology which conveys remorse for harm inflicted, an explanation of the details surrounding the betrayal, and a promise of future cooperation. Further, it is critical for the parties to substantively reaffirm their commitment to each other and to the ideals and values upon which the relationship is built. The offender should explicitly recommit to the relationship, and discuss strategies to avoid similar problems in the future.
As before, both communication and action are essential to the trust rebuilding process, but IBT repair involves an emotional, relational focus. For example, simply paying some form of material compensation may not be sufficient to re-assert shared values and rebuild the common sense of identity that was the foundation of the trust.
Practical Implications for Building Trust
What Individuals Can Do
It should be noted that trust building is a bilateral process that requires mutual commitment and effort, especially when attempting to de-escalate conflict. Nonetheless, there are several ways individuals can act on their own to initiate or encourage the trust building process. This is accomplished by either taking steps to minimize the risk that the other party will act in untrustworthy ways (also see the essay on distrust), or by policing one's own actions to ensure they are perceived as evidence of trustworthiness.
At the CBT level, individuals can take several steps to strengthen another's trust in them, particularly when these steps are performed repeatedly and within several different contexts of the relationship.
At the IBT level, prescriptions for trust building entail a number of additional steps.
What the Media Can Do
The media can play an important role in the trust building process by using news reporting as a way to increase the value of established, functional trust while simultaneously encouraging the parties not to violate that trust. Journalism aimed at wide audiences encourages parties to place more value on their reputations, as good reputations carry additional benefits, while bad reputations carry heightened costs. The media can also create and report stories, which build trust by featuring common identities, values, and concerns across diverse populations. In some cases, the media can also act as a third party that can facilitate greater openness and transparency. The parties can potentially use this forum to provide evidence of the compliance and trustworthiness of conflicting parties. For example, the media frequently uses consumer advocate reporting to investigate disputes between consumers and service providers. Finally, the media can promote accurate information of the parties in order to dispel inaccurate and negative stereotypes that forestall any trust-building efforts.
What the Educational System Can Do
Educators can assist by using classroom experiences such as dialog groups, problem-solving workshops, simulations and role-plays to practice trust-building at various stages of relationships. Subsequent debriefing sessions can also highlight how students manage their emotional reactions in the trust building process (i.e., making the conversion from suspicion and fear to benevolence and hope). These experiences have the benefit of allowing students to develop their trust building skills in a safe environment that is somewhat detached from more emotionally-charged and less controlled environments where trust may be hard to establish and easy to break.
Practical Implications for Rebuilding Trust
What Individuals Can Do
As we have noted earlier, effective trust repair is often necessary to resolve conflicts. Although this process is difficult, there are steps the offender can take to enhance the likelihood of stimulating the victim's willingness to reconcile, and further the trust rebuilding process. However, we stress that rebuilding trust is a process, not an event. As such, it is likely to consume a lot of time and resources. Containing conflict in the short term may be confined to managing distrust. Nonetheless, we offer several recommendations for rebuilding trust in both CBT and IBT relationships.
For rebuilding CBT, the following steps are suggested:
In IBT relationships, the following steps should also be followed:
A number of other helpful suggestions may be found in the essay on distrust.
Finally, we also wish to highlight possible obstacles to the trust rebuilding process. One of the most common is that some people are not clearly 'attuned' to other people's reactions, and hence do not understand when their behavior has violated someone else's trust. Thus, some individuals may have limited perspective-taking skills that make them less able to understand the consequences of trust violations they enact. Moreover, these same people may not know how to take the appropriate corrective action in order to begin to rebuild the other's trust. There is also an important psychological role for taking responsibility for one's actions, communicating remorse, and going to special lengths to compensate victims for harm inflicted by the offender. These types of restorative actions may threaten one's ego or self-esteem, and the expected benefits derived from such actions may not be deemed to be worth the expected costs for some individuals.
Another aspect to consider is the legal implications of our guidance. While apologies convey remorse and responsibility that aids in the trust rebuilding process, they also admit culpability that can be legally problematic. If trust rebuilding is the priority, the offender will have critical decisions to make regarding whether and how to apologize. Once again, there may be instances where the costs associated with trust rebuilding are unfortunately outweighed (for better or worse) by other considerations, such as minimizing legal liability.
What the Media Can Do
While the media cannot directly rebuild trust between the parties, they can facilitate dialog and provide documentation of trust-rebuilding efforts. Reparative efforts by offenders may carry additional weight when conducted voluntarily and in a public forum. Knowing the risks to one's reputation by publicizing a complete account may provide additional credence and demonstrate sincerity. Media outlets may best provide this type of public forum.
What the Educational System Can Do
As with trust-building initiatives, the educational system can help parties rebuild trust by promoting workshops and dialog groups that bring the parties together. Safe and structured programs can allow the victims to articulate their interests and expectations, and how these interests and expectations were violated, as well as provide the offender with an environment that can facilitate their efforts at reconciliation and trust repair.
 Rousseau, D. M., Sitkin, S. B., Burt, R. S., and Camerer, C. (1998). "Not so Different After All: A Cross-Discipline View of Trust," in Academy of Management Review, 23, 393-404.
 Lewicki, R. J., McAllister, D. J., & Bies, R. J. (1998). Trust and distrust: New relationships and realities. Academy of Management Review, 23, 438-458.
Use the following to cite this article:
Lewicki, Roy J. and Edward C. Tomlinson. "Trust and Trust Building." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: December 2003 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/trust-building>.