Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: trust from Dictionary of Politics and Government

to believe that someone will do something they have promised

Summary Article: Trust
From The Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology and Behavioral Science

Trust is a multifaceted concept typically defined as “the expectancy of positive outcomes that one can receive based on the expected action of another party in an interaction characterized by uncertainty” (Bhattacharya, Devinney, & Pillutla, (1998)). It is a variable that is of interest to scientists and practitioners working in a variety of areas of psychology involving interpersonal relationships, including marital, social, and business relationships. Psychologists treat trust as both a dispositional (personality) variable and a temporary state.

Trust as a Dispositional Variable

Those who are predisposed to be trusting tend to give others the benefit of the doubt unless they have clear evidence that someone is untrustworthy. In social dilemma situations, they expect others to cooperate (Komorita & Parks, (1994)), and they avoid using deception (Rotter, (1980)). Trust is negatively related to Machiavellianism and authoritarianism (Deutsch, (1960)).

Those who are predisposed to be distrusting actively entertain suspicions as to another’s motives for positive behaviors. They sometimes make sinister attribution errors, explaining another’s negative actions in terms of hostile interpersonal motives rather than environmental factors (Kramer, (1999)).

Trust as a Temporary State

Trust is also regarded as a temporary cognitive and emotional state that is manifested in specific situations. Although distrust and trust are usually considered opposite poles on one continuum, a newer perspective is that these concepts are qualitatively different (Lewicki, Tomlinson, & Gillespie, (2006)). Trust ranges from low trust (characterized by hesitance, uncertainty, and a lack of confidence in another) to high trust (characterized by initiative, assurance, and confidence in another). Distrust ranges from low distrust (characterized by little desire to monitor another person and an absence of fear and skepticism) to high distrust (characterized by vigilance, fear, and skeptical cynicism toward another). In complex, multifaceted relationships, it is possible for a person to trust others in one area of life yet distrust them in other areas.

Research investigating states of trust often explores one of the following themes.

Trust Based on Possible Outcomes

In this theme, trust is based on a rational choice within specific economic or social exchange parameters. To betray another’s trust may bring immediate gain but enduring undesirable consequences (e.g., a lawsuit). Trust based on rational choice is called calculus-based (or deterrence-based) trust by numerous authors (see Lewicki, Tomlinson, & Gillespie, (2006)).

Such trust may also be related to one’s cooperative motivational orientation (MO), which is defined as a state in which a person’s motivation falls along a continuum ranging from competition (e.g., seeking to maximize one’s own outcomes relative to another) to cooperation (e.g., seeking to maximize both one’s own outcomes and those of another). People make choices based on both the likely consequences of those choices and their MO. Thus, in some situations (e.g., prisoner’s dilemma experiments), cooperative behavior is used as a surrogate for trust. Self-report measures of trust are indeed related to cooperative behavior, and distrust often leads to less cooperation. Ironically, calculus-based trust is considered a weak form of trust because observers often attribute cooperation to situational constraints or rewards rather than to any internal state within another person (Malhotra & Murnighan, (2002)).

Trust and Predictability

This theme suggests that a person who behaves consistently and predictably is trustworthy. Predictability allows others to anticipate whether a person will keep his or her word. This is called knowledge-based trust (Shapiro, Sheppard, & Cheraskin, (1992)). Even if a person is not cooperative, if he or she is consistent, then others can devise strategies for dealing with that person. Finally, a pattern of repeated cooperative behavior can establish trust (Kramer, (1999)).

Trust and a Problem-Solving Perspective

This theme relates trust to a collaborative problem-solving orientation in negotiation situations. Trust increases information sharing and problem solving, which may, in turn, lead to better joint outcomes—yet these have similar effects even when trust is low. Thus, trust may have little direct effect on negotiated payoffs (for a review, see Lewicki, Saunders, & Barry, (2006)). This paradox may be due to trust improving the quality of the parties’ relationship rather than increasing their ability to resolve specific issues. Indeed, friends are often less likely than strangers to discover integrative bargaining solutions because maintaining the trusting relationship is more important than obtaining short-term payoffs (Ross & LaCroix, (1996)).

Shapiro and colleagues (1992) suggest that trust is maximized when cooperative MO, predictability, and the problem-solving perspectives merge into what they call identification-based trust. Here, each side internalizes the other’s interests and thus develops shared interests.

Trust Development

Investigators are interested in how these various forms of trust develop over time within different contexts, such as work groups and virtual teams (Lewicki, Tomlinson, & Gillespie, (2006)). Some discuss swift trust—trust that is necessary at the start of a relationship in order to, say, conduct a business transaction; such trust is often based on the professional roles each person plays (Kramer, (1999)). Trust is also generally more fragile than distrust. Research is exploring factors that cause a loss of trust and its restoration (Schweitzer, Hershey, & Bradlow, (2006)).

Antecedents of Trust

Numerous social factors, such as perceived benevolence, ability, and integrity, contribute to trust formation (Mayer, Davis, & Schoorman, (1995)). Mental shortcuts called cognitive heuristics also facilitate trust or distrust—sometimes erroneously. For example, people selectively notice, recall, and evaluate certain information (e.g., vivid evidence of betrayal) when deciding whether to trust another (Ross & LaCroix, (1996)).

Consequences of Trust

There are numerous consequences of trust, including a willingness to be vulnerable to another. Trust may also enhance relationships, causing greater empathy and mutual concern (Lewicki, Saunders, & Barry, (2006)). However, trust can prove unwise. The trusting party is unlikely to recognize evidence of betrayal. Trust may also lead to using fewer objective standards and verification mechanisms to ensure compliance (Ross & LaCroix, (1996)). Thus, trust may sometimes cause someone to be blind to another person’s untrustworthy behavior.

In conclusion, trust is an important, yet complex, psychological variable that emerges in many social settings, and it interests scholars in numerous fields. For example, special journal issues devoted to trust have appeared in Academy of Management Review (vol. 23, no. 3, 1998), Risk Analysis (vol. 26, no. 5, 2006), European Journal of Marketing (vol. 41, no. 9/10, 2007), Group & Organization Management (vol. 32, no. 4, 2007), and Journal of Business Ethics (vol. 8, no. 2, 1998). In such diverse publications, common threads emerge: Trust is both a dispositional trait and a temporary state. Within the latter perspective, research themes have investigated trust based on possible outcomes, predictability, and problem solving. How trust forms, is destroyed, and is restored are areas of ongoing investigation. Trust is a social, affective, and cognitive phenomenon with numerous antecedents; if correctly placed, trust may yield lasting benefits to the involved parties.

See also

Interpersonal Relationships.

  • Bhattacharya, R., Devinney, T., & Pillutla, M. (1998). A formal model of trust based on outcomes. Academy of Management Review, 23, 459-472.
  • Deutsch, M. (1960). Trust, trustworthiness, and the F-scale. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 61, 138-140.
  • Komorita, S. S., & Parks, C. D. (1994). Social dilemmas. Madison, WI: Brown & Benchmark.
  • Kramer, R. M. (1999). Trust and distrust in organizations: Emerging perspectives, enduring questions. Annual Review of Psychology, 50, 569-598.
  • Lewicki, R. J., Saunders, D., & Barry, B. (2006). Negotiation (5th ed.). Burr Ridge, IL: McGraw-Hill/Irwin.
  • Lewicki, R. J., Tomlinson, E. C., & Gillespie, N. (2006). Models of interpersonal trust development: Theoretical approaches, empirical evidence, and future directions. Journal of Management, 32(6), 991-1022.
  • Malhotra, D., & Murnighan, J. K. (2002). The effects of contracts on interpersonal trust. Administrative Science Quarterly, 47, 534-559.
  • Mayer, R. C., Davis, J., & Schoorman, F. D. (1995). An integrative model of organizational trust. Academy of Management Review, 20, 709-734.
  • Ross, W. H. Jr., & La Croix, J. (1996). Multiple meanings of trust in negotiation theory and research: A literature review and an integrative model. International Journal of Conflict Management, 7, 314-360.
  • Rotter, J. B. (1980). Interpersonal trust, trustworthiness, and gullibility. American Psychologist, 35, 1-7.
  • Shapiro, D. L., Sheppard, B. H., & Cheraskin, L. (1992). Business on a handshake. Negotiation Journal, 8, 365-378.
  • Schweitzer, M. E., Hershey, J. C., & Bradlow, E. T. (2006). Promises and lies: Restoring violated trust. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 101, 1-19.
    University of Wisconsin at La Crosse
    Copyright © 2010 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved.

    Related Articles

    Full text Article Trust
    Political and Civic Leadership: A Reference Handbook

    In today's complex, highly technical world, every decision we make is accompanied by a host of alternatives that we could have pursued instead....

    Full text Article Trust
    International Encyclopedia of Organization Studies

    Trust is often defined as a willingness to be vulnerable. People are willing to take this risk of being vulnerable when they have positive...

    Full text Article Trust
    Encyclopedia of Human Relationships

    Imagine a hypothetical couple, Chris and Susan. Susan has just decided she wants to pursue her dream of going back to school to become a...

    See more from Credo