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Why study trust?

In many countries, including Britain, the Euro-elections in May showed that a substantial minority of voters are disillusioned with mainstream parties of both government and opposition. This result was widely anticipated, and all over Europe media commentators have been proclaiming that the public is losing trust in established politicians. Opinion polls certainly support this view, but what are they measuring when they ask questions about trust? It is a slippery concept which suggests very different things to different people. Social scientists cannot reach any kind of consensus on what it means, let alone on what might be undermining it. Yet most people would agree that some kind of trust in the political process is essential to a stable and prosperous society.

Social scientists have had trouble with the concept of trust because most of them attempt to reach an unambiguous definition of it, distinguishing it from all other concepts, and then apply it to all societies at different times and in different parts of the world. The results are unsatisfactory, and some are tempted to ditch the term altogether. Yet there self-evidently is such a thing as trust, and it plays a major role in our everyday life. Even if the word is often misused, we should not abandon it. My approach is different: I use the word as the focus of a semantic milieu which includes related concepts such as confidence, reliance, faith and belief, and then see how they work in practice in different historical settings.

The original impulse for Trust came from a specific historical setting: Russia during the 1990s. There I observed, at first hand, the impact on ordinary Russians of economic and political reforms inspired by Western example and in some cases directly imposed by the West. Those reforms rested on economic and political precepts derived from Western institutions and practices which dated back decades or even centuries – generating habits of mutual trust which had become so ingrained that we did not notice them anymore. In Russia those institutions and practices instead aroused wariness at first, then distrust, then resentment and even hatred of the West and its policies.

I learnt from that experience that much social solidarity derives from forms of mutual trust which are so unreflective that we are no longer aware of them. Trust does not always spring from conscious choice, as some social scientists affirm. On the contrary, some of its most important manifestations are unconscious. They are nevertheless definitely learned, not an instinctive part of human nature. It follows that forms of trust which we take for granted are not appropriate for all societies.

Despite these differences, human beings are by nature predisposed towards trust. Our ability to participate in society depends on trusting those around us unless there is strong evidence that we should not do so. We all seek to trust someone, even – perhaps especially – in what seem desperate situations. To live without trusting anyone or anything is intolerable; those who seek to mobilise trust are therefore working with the grain of human nature.


We also all need trust as a cognitive tool, to learn about the world around us. In childhood we take what our parents tell us on trust, whereas during adolescence we may well learn that some of it is untrue or inadequate. Learning to discriminate and to moderate both trust and distrust is extraordinarily difficult. The same applies in the natural sciences: we cannot replicate all experiments carried out in the past in order to check whether they are valid. We have trust most of what scientists tell us and integrate it into our world picture.

Because we all need trust so much, it tends to create a kind of herd instinct. We have a strong tendency to place our trust where those around us do so. As a senior figure in the Royal Bank of Scotland commented on the widespread profligacy which generated the 2008 financial crisis: “The problem is that in banks you have this kind of mentality, this kind of group-think, and people just keep going with what they know, and they don’t want to listen to bad news.”

Trust, then, is necessary both to avoid despair and to navigate our way through life, and it cannot always be based on what we know for certain. When we encounter unfamiliar people – and in the modern world this is a frequent experience – we usually begin by exercising an ‘advance’ of trust. If it is reciprocated, we can go on to form a fruitful relationship. But a lot depends on the nature and context of this first encounter. Does the other person speak in a familiar language, look reassuring and make gestures we can easily ‘read’? Trust is closely linked to identity – our sense of our own identity and of that of those around us.

On the whole the reason we tend to trust persons around us is because they are using symbolic systems similar to our own. To trust those whose systems are very different we have to make a conscious effort, and probably to make a tentative ‘advance’ of trust. This is the familiar problem of the ‘other’. Overcoming that initial distrust requires something close to a leap in the dark.

Whether we know it or not, we spend much of our social life as part of a trust network. Such networks can be very strong and supportive, but they also tend to erect around themselves rigid boundaries, across which distrust is projected. When two or more trust networks are in enmity with one another, an ‘advance’ of trust can only work satisfactorily if it proves possible to transform negative-sum games into positive-sum games. However, an outside threat helps two mutually distrusting networks to find common ground, settle at least some of their differences and work together to ward off the threat. When the threat is withdrawn, they may well resume their mutual enmity.

During the twentieth century the social sciences – and following them history – were mostly dominated by theories derived from the study of power and/or rational choice. We still talk glibly of the struggle between democracy and authoritarianism, without considering the kinds of social solidarity which underlie both forms of government. I believe we need to supplement political science with a kind of ‘trust science’, which studies people’s mutual sympathy, their lively and apparently ineradicable tendency to seek reciprocal relationships with one another, and also what happens when that tendency breaks down. It is supremely important to analyse forms of social solidarity which do not derive directly from power structures and/or rational choice. Among other things, such an analysis might help us to understand why certain forms of trust have become generally accepted in Western society, and why they are in crisis right now.

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Image credit: David Cameron. Photo by Toms Norde, Valsts kanceleja. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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