In today’s global and digitalized world, the investigation of relational trust as part of social connections has remained a popular and interdisciplinary academic topic. This book explores the idea of trust as a basic type of information processing that might be as old as human existence but has gained new attention with the emergence of online communication channels. The result is a strategic reconsideration of the brain’s role in the formation of social relationships and a new look at how information might shape our confidence in others.
2 Between Social and Mental States
As the subject of scientific exploration, trust seems to be in high demand nowadays. While human communication networks are expanding and new types of social relationships are experienced daily, trust has become a shared topic in newspaper headlines, political speeches, and marketing campaigns (cf. Kerbusk, Piegsa, & Frevert, 2015). In everyday language, trust is associated with attributes such as safety, intimacy, stability, and reliability, while a lack of trust is linked to insecurity, instability, and risk. Every time there is a public crisis, every time a public persona is accused of something, the newspapers and media express their lack of trust. The presence or absence of trust has become a recurring part of the public debate and has found even greater attention in the digital age and through the emergence of new types of communication networks. It is regularly used to demonstrate power, dependence, influence, or rejection toward another actor (cf. Bou Zeineddine & Pratto, 2014). For this reason, the notion of trust has become an essential foundation for building (and expressing) either confidence in or skepticism toward other social actors.
While the humanities and social sciences have offered valuable conceptualizations of trust, little is known about its origin or formation. Most scholars have suggested that trust operates somewhere between the mental and social spheres of human interaction and that it impacts the way a person experiences risk in social interactions (cf. Barber, 1983; Luhmann, 1979). Furthermore, they have mostly agreed that trust is firmly tied to a specific way individuals experience and process other social actors and can be considered highly complex in nature (cf. Hartmann, 2010).
Trust research can be found in a large variety of disciplines, including psychology, sociology, political science, economics, anthropology, and organizational behavior (cf. Lewicki et al., 1998, p. 438). In the scientific context, trust can refer to different (and often contradictory) concepts. Sometimes it is understood as a type of behavior, sometimes as a mental state or a kind of social practice, and sometimes it is interpreted as a “leap of faith” (Möllering, 2013, p. 2).
Consequently, there are a lot of open, unanswered questions in the scientific discourse. Is trust a motivation? Is it an emotion? Is it a type of conduct?9 Or is ←37 | 38→it just a metaphor for something? Even though a lot has been written on the subject, scholars still struggle to articulate clearly what trust refers to (cf. Lewicki et al., 2006). For this reason, it is not clear whether scholars from different fields have been talking about the same thing or about interrelated concepts whenever they address trust.
The multiplicity of interpretations and general lack of a precise definition in the scientific discourse is no coincidence, as the meaning of trust has undergone an etymological progression, and in everyday usage and as a general aspect of social interactions (for instance, when someone declares “I trust you” to another person to express her commitment) has been subject to different interpretations (cf. Hardin, 2001). Following the German historian Ute Frevert (2013), who offers one of the more recent analyses of trust as a particularly modern concept, the usage and interpretation of trust has undergone various transformations throughout history and should therefore be put into a specific cultural context when analyzed.10 According to Frevert, the success of trust as a concept illustrates how both increasing individualization and a growing need for interconnectivity have established themselves as distinct components of modern societies (cf. Endreß, 2008, p. 2). She further argues that since the experience of relatedness has gained more significance as part of the public discourse, the concept of trust has been progressively used to refer to this new social reality.
In the 19th century, trust became a larger-than-life concept, a sort of shared ideal of social relatedness, and thus transformed into a general concept of intimacy and familiarity—describing the amicable and pristine side of social relations:
Although the encyclopedias of the time warned the reader against too much trust and blind confidence, it can be interpreted quite easily that trust had become modernity’s favorite desire. Supposedly, giving trust, as much as receiving trust, produced a strong ←38 | 39→sense of well being. Those who received trust could consider themselves trustworthy and enjoy high social reputation and capital.11 (Frevert, 2013, p. 36)
Because modern societies tend to offer more complex types of social structuring, the idea of whom you can trust became increasingly important in the 20th century. Trust can be addressed not only toward other people but also to “formal relations and abstract organizations, as found in the economy, society and politics”12 (Frevert, 2013, p. 39). Frevert has further noted that this type of trust in more abstract social actors has become a more dominant idea in the late 20th and early 21st century. Today, people can not only trust friends and family, they can also potentially trust (or mistrust) the manufacturers of products they are consuming, the politicians they elect to office, or even the larger institutions and societal systems on which they rely.
Furthermore, in the public sphere, trust is often discussed as something individuals must be constantly aware of in order to function properly in social interactions (cf. Frevert, 2013, pp. 39–41). From this perspective, trust is considered to be fundamental to how people generally experience relatedness and how they communicate with each other. Following this rhetoric, trust has seemingly become a permanent part of how individuals process their social environment in an increasingly globalized world.
Judging by the cultural and semantic shifts, it seems evident that the etymological progression of the word “trust” has resonated with the changing public understanding of what constitutes a social relationship in modern societies, with their changing communicational infrastructures (cf. Giddens, 1990). Considering this change, scholars have adopted a variety of interrelated approaches to the issue of trust. To address this variety, I will briefly summarize the most significant theoretical assumptions about trust. The aim is not to present these assumptions as parts of a single narrative but rather to emphasize the various interpretations of trust that have emerged from the changing meaning of social relationships over time.←39 | 40→
According to Martin Endreß (2002), most philosophers and sociologists have shared the opinion that trust is not a simple entity but instead emerges from the complexity of our social environment. For instance, Émile Durkheim hinted at the existence of a modern, normative obligation between actors that would enable the emergence of social agreements—a type of organic solidarity between social actors that works as a prerequisite for many complex social interactions, as it offers a specific kind of invisible contract (cf. Durkheim, 1988, as cited in Endreß, 2002). This contract further generates shared moral expectations and a specific code of conduct. Following Durkheim, many complex social relations can be maintained only if this kind of solidarity—the assumption that the other side is like-minded and benevolent (and has similar goals)—can be invigorated.
Furthermore, Georg Simmel suggested that trust was something that could operate not only within direct, interpersonal relationships but also in the realm of professionalized relationships and interactions based on objectified and symbolic dimensions (cf. Simmel, 1989, as cited in Endreß, 2002). Thus, he addressed trust as a normative obligation on the micro, meso, and macro level of modern societies, suggesting that forms of trust could be present not only in interactions with other individuals but also in interactions with groups as well as systemic institutions.
Contrary to Simmel, who assumed that the micro and macro levels of our society offered different types of trust, Max Weber suggested that any sense of relatedness on the part of social actors concurrently featured similar levels of personal, communal, or societal affiliation (cf. Weber, 1976, as cited in Endreß, 2002). Thus, Weber thought that people could draw from different sources and emergence levels—such as appearance, status, profession, or systemic representation—in order to trust other social actors. For instance, a policewoman could be simultaneously experienced through her individual personality, profession, or role as representative of the state. Furthermore, Weber predicted that a general trust in strangers would enable a person to build new transactional relations, since, based on her trust, that person could expect shared codes of conduct and a general reliability in future interactions (cf. Weber, 1976, as cited in Endreß, 2002). In Weber’s definition, trusting other social actors is almost a rational skill, one that allows individuals to connect socially with strangers (cf. Misztal, 1996; Schluchter, 1976).
Following this tradition, Lewis and Weigert (1985) have more recently noted that trust generates the idea of “mutual ‘faithfulness’ […] on which all social relationships ultimately depend” (p. 968). Accordingly, interactants usually ←40 | 41→have a more consistent idea of how to engage with each other whenever trust is present. Nonetheless, the authors have suggested that even if trust often seems “functionally necessary for the continuance of harmonious relationships, its actual continuance in any particular social bond is always problematic” (Lewis & Weigert, 1985, p. 969).
With the increasing knowledge of the role of trust in our experience of others, it became more evident to scholars that trust had a significant meaning for the outcome of social interactions. Peter M. Blau was one of the first to note that trust seems particularly essential in social interactions—which are highly different from formalized exchanges, as they are less predictable and bound to fewer rules and regulations:
Since there is no way to assure an appropriate return for a favor, social exchange requires trusting others to discharge their obligations. […] Only social exchange tends to engender feelings of personal obligation, gratitude, and trust; purely economic exchange as such does not. (Blau, 1964, p. 94, as cited in Endreß, 2002)
According to Alfred Schütz (1974), any social, nonformal interaction requires a sense of coherence and familiarity. Without the knowledge of what kind of person they are interacting with (and whether they can rely on that individual’s testimony), an individual cannot anticipate her interactant’s behavior or further reciprocate in cooperative ways. However, not every situation can offer a distinct sense of familiarity and indeed, some may be experienced as dangerous or risky.
Following Niklas Luhmann, many social interactions whose outcome is not entirely predictable, especially those that feature high risk, are characterized by a number of contingencies; in the worst case, the other side might even harm you. Luhmann assumed that in order to further engage in such situations, human beings could rely either on their hope in a generally positive outcome of the interaction or on their explicit trust in the interactant; he further assumed that, unlike hope, trust requires a distinct knowledge of the possibility of being harmed by the interactant:
Trust […] always bears upon a critical alternative, in which the harm resulting from a breach of trust may be greater than the benefit to be gained from the trust proving warranted. Hence one who trusts takes cognizance of the possibility of excessive harm arising from the selectivity of others’ actions and adopts a position towards that possibility. One who hopes simply has confidence despite uncertainty. Trust reflects contingency. Hope ignores contingency. (Luhmann, 1979, p. 24)
Because Luhmann believed trust is characterized by an individual’s consideration of contingency, he suggested that a person generally needed to be aware of her interactant’s mental state and agenda in order to trust; at least, she had to assume that her interactant played by the same rules when she relied on their trust. Consequently, Luhmann saw trust as the result of a mutual awareness and communication of shared interest in social interactions:
[T]he communication of interest in the display of trust, the presentation of self as trustworthy, the acceptance and the reciprocation of trust are all efforts to intensify and generalize social relationships which prove, in long-term relationships at least, to be both opportunity and constraint. Thus, an element of social control is built into relationships of trust. (Luhmann, 1979, p. 64)
For a better understanding of Luhmann’s approach to trust, the idea of double contingency is highly essential. Basically, double contingency refers to the notion that an individual experiences a mutual awareness in social interactions: she processes her interactant’s conduct, but she is also aware that her interactant processes his own conduct. Consequently, any sense of social order (or social risk) in such interactions depends on the contingencies associated with both interactants. As James L. Loomis (1959) has suggested, an individual must be aware not only of herself in the relationship, “but [s]he must know the other person’s role, and [s]he must be assured that the other person’s thinking is similar to [her] […] own before there will be any basis of cooperation” (p. 306). As Kron, Schimank, and Lasarczyk (2003) have noted, double contingency can be understood as the elemental source of communication (and therefore, of the formation of human communication networks). Only if two actors (or entities) are aware of each other can they engage in informational exchanges and produce new types of order.
For Luhmann, trust enables people to experience a sense of social order even if they are aware of risk through double contingency. In terms of his definition, trust may be understood as a part of a specific communicational relation between an individual and her interactant through which they become mutually aware of each other. With the help of trust, individuals are thought to be capable of handling the informational gap of risk and their general awareness of double contingency—factors that otherwise could further complicate social engagement or even render any further interaction impossible—with a certain ease.
As Giddens (1990) has suggested, the filling of informational gaps can be considered one of the primary functions of trust. Especially in modern human communication networks, many mediated communication channels are characterized by spatial or temporal distances as well as epistemic imbalances between interactants (cf. F. Hendriks, 2015). Therefore, trust seems essential if ←42 | 43→individuals want to establish, despite these gaps and disruptions, a sense of stability and reliability in their experience of others. According to Loomis (1959), a key feature of trust is that it can ensure the continuance of a social tie as part of a communicational relation; simply speaking, it holds the experience of social ties together, even if they are in danger of falling apart.
Unless an individual has “already learned what to expect from the other person, he will have to depend for these awarenesses on communication between himself and the other person” (p. 306). Following Loomis’s suggestion, trust can be considered part of the “connective tissue” in the dynamic interdependencies of social ties (cf. Endreß, 2008).13 Trust allows individuals to experience social interactions as consistent and reliable by (at least) giving them the momentary impression of a continuous communicational relation.
Because of its rather unique impact on social interactions, scholars who believe trust can help individuals overcome insecurities and the general sense of risk in interactions have assumed that trust can greatly affect the ongoing progress of social ties (cf. Karlan, Mobius, Rosenblat, & Szeidl, 2009). Many scholars assume that trust allows individuals to interact with social actors with whom they are not yet familiar, because it can potentially compensate for informational gaps or a lack of full disclosure (cf. Wang & Emurian, 2005).
Since there has not yet been a precise answer as to how trust is constituted, assumptions differ on where, precisely, it is located within the realm of social ties. Following Granovetter’s (1983) original theory of strong and weak social ties,14 trust can be seen as “a property either of individuals or of the emotional content, common understandings, or reciprocities of their interpersonal relationships” (S. P. Shapiro, 1987, p. 625). Like many scholars, Granovetter assumed that the ←43 | 44→communicational relation associated with trust has a significant impact on the progress of social ties, even if it is only experienced subjectively.
Consequently, many social ties are thought to rely on trust, since it promotes nonspecific obligations, such as commitment or honesty, within two actors (cf. Endreß, 2002, p. 23). If trust is present, social exchanges may even offer opportunities that economic or formal exchanges cannot deliver. With that in mind, Coleman (1994) has demonstrated that the presence of trust can strongly impact how people share responsibilities with each other and is deeply tied to “the unilateral transfer of control over certain resources to another actor, based on a hope or expectation that the other’s actions will satisfy his interests better than would his own actions” (p. 91).
Coleman (1982) further assumed that trust is often a necessity in social interactions that are marked by a degree of asymmetry. Social ties generally feature imbalances in power, status, and knowledge, and a level of trust is often required for individuals to overcome them. Because of these asymmetries, without the regulatory function of trust, people would fail to relate (positively) to each other. For instance, Talcott Parsons (1978, as cited in Endreß, 2002) has argued that trust can in fact be a requirement for the formation of social structures that include interactions with highly abstract expert systems and symbolic media. Similarly, Harold Garfinkel and Erwin Goffman have suggested that the way that human beings trust might significantly contribute to social norms between interactants, especially in modern societies—since, in such societies, trust can often be demanded as a requirement for social interaction (cf. Endreß, 2002, pp. 24–25).
Trust is therefore widely thought to have a specific function not only for the progress of social ties but also for human communication networks in general. One way scholars have framed the specific impact of trust on network structures has been to locate it as a part of a network’s social capital15 or social collateral (cf. Karlan et al., 2009). According to Robert D. Putnam, such a social dimension of trust rests
implicitly on some background of shared social networks and expectations of reciprocity. […] [It also] extends the radius of trust beyond the roster of people whom we ←44 | 45→can know personally. […] Social trust in this sense is strongly associated with many other forms of civic engagement and social capital. Other things being equal, people who trust their fellow citizens volunteer more often, contribute more to charity, participate more often in politics and community organizations, serve more readily on juries, give blood more frequently, comply more fully with tax obligations, are more tolerant of minority views, and display many other forms of civic virtue. (Putnam, 2000, pp. 136–137)
However, Putnam did not frame trust exclusively as something positive. He assumed that it could also generate “vicious spirals (or virtual circles)” (p. 138), since our expectation of the trustworthiness of others influences the perception our own trustworthiness, which in turn influences their behavior. In his understanding, the outcome of trust relied heavily on how individual perceptions and social norms were communicated within a network or community.
In many ways, this becomes even more evident in the context of human communication networks that rely primarily on online communication. Sherchan, Nepal, and Paris (2013) have argued that “[u]sers trusting each other, working, and interacting with each other is the real source of power and growth for any community. Therefore, trust becomes a critical factor in the success of these communities” (p. 47:14). Vincent Willem Buskens (2002) has further noted that trust will also highly impact information diffusion within such networks. Although scholars do not generally agree on the origin or formation of trust, many of them have attempted to investigate its general role in such communities and, more frequently, in online social networks, since they believe that trust can be highly beneficial for social structuring. In the literature, trust is understood as a key factor not only in the emergence of new communities on the World Wide Web (cf. Thiedeke, 2007) but also in the formation of social movements in general (cf. Castells, 2012; Connolly, 2015).
As Loose and Sydow (1994) have suggested, the general confidence emerging from trust can be considered a prerequisite for many new transactional and coordinative processes and a central source for the acquisition of new members. Some scholars have highlighted the importance of this confidence for the presence of reciprocity, connectivity, or altruism within social networks (Diekmann, Jann, Przepiorka, & Wehrli, 2014), while others have related trust and an experience of social relatedness to the effectiveness of information flows within a network (Sundararajan, Provost, Oestreicher-Singer, & Aral, 2013). It is further assumed that trust will impact not just the accessibility of new information within communication networks (Karlan et al., 2009) but also the integration of outside knowledge (Loose & Sydow, 1994, p. 161).←45 | 46→
While most explorations of trust’s function have attempted to locate it either as part of the experience of individuals or as part of the development of social ties and structures, some scholars have used a more complex and multi-layered definition of trust to connect these two dimensions. For instance, Lynn G. Zucker has noted (1985) that trust allowed members of a social network or organization to experience social relationships both toward co-members and the network or organization in general. In many ways, this is in line with the approach to trust taken by scholars like Bernard Barber (1983), who concluded that trust’s primary function is that of “social ordering, of providing cognitive and moral expectational maps for actors and systems as they continuously interact” (p. 19). Simply speaking, Zucker thought that trust helped individuals to develop a shared understanding of how things are done:
Although important mechanisms of trust production can arise within local exchange, it is not until they are reconstructed as intersubjective and as part of the “external world known in common” that they generalize beyond that transaction. This process of reconstruction has been called institutionalization: the process of redefining acts as exterior when intersubjective understanding causes them to be seen as part of the external world and objective when they are repeatable by others without changing the common understanding of the acts. […] When trust producing mechanisms are high on institutionalization, they rest on widely shared understandings of “how things are done.” (Zucker 1985, pp. 11–12)
Following Zucker’s argumentation, the emergence of shared common practices and behavioral routines within a human communication network can often be interpreted as a direct result of trust. Trust may also greatly contribute to the institutionalization of social groups, as it enables a mental distinction between one’s own community and the external world. Especially in larger networks, the specific way network members trust each other can often be representative of the network’s social infrastructure.
One factor contributing to the institutionalization of groups to which scholars have given increasing attention is the heavy reliance of any interaction within social networks on the network’s communicational infrastructures. This reliance might apply equally to trust, which (as we have already seen) scholars have often approached as a communicational relation. According to Giddens (1991), (mass-) mediated information about other social actors may greatly impact our ability to trust, as it can enable communicational relations to ←46 | 47→more abstract social actors (such as organizations or governmental institutions) (cf. p. 115). Therefore, reliable and credible information sources can be of great value for our ability to trust—especially in digital social-resonance spaces (cf. Flanagin, Metzger, Pure, & Markov, 2011; Reich, 2011a).
For this reason, professions or institutions such as journalism, public relations, or marketing, which are all in the business of distributing (actor-related) information, can profoundly influence the way individuals trust (Blöbaum, 2014; Hoffjann, 2011; Kohring, 2001). As Thorsten Quandt (2012) has noted, new communication media, such as social networking services, may further impact the way people build trust and relate to each other, as they often serve as alternatives to traditional mass media. Taking all of this into account, modern communication technologies (especially digital technologies) may alter or even change the communicational relation behind trust and provide it with new functionality and meaning as part of a new resonance space (as noted in Chapter 1).
Theoretical assumptions about the functionality of trust have shown that trust is not a particularly new phenomenon but a more basic element of human social experience. While trust may draw greater public attention whenever social structures undergo change or underlie rapid transformational processes (such as increasingly dynamic communication networks), scholars have suggested that it plays a primary role in how individuals experience their interactants. For this reason, it can be assumed that in order to participate in their social environments, human beings have developed a primordial need to trust, as it eases and simplifies their social interactions and their general experience of social relationships. Without this simplification, many common types of social interaction would otherwise be confronted with a greater awareness of conductional risk.
So far, I have addressed approaches to trust that give an analytical and rather descriptive idea of how trust functions and how it impacts social interactions. What can be emphasized at this point is that trust affects not only the experience of individuals but also the larger communication networks. It is generally thought to help people overcome informational gaps in social interactions and to help preserve a communicational relation with their interactants. While the literature has provided plenty of arguments on why trust is of general importance for social interactions, it has often avoided any further exploration of ←47 | 48→the origin or emergence of trust. One reason for this is the relatively limited knowledge of how the human brain generates consciousness and how exactly this affects human behavior (cf. Epstein, 2016). Because of this, the empirical exploration of the formation of trust is still in its infancy and can surely profit from newer fields of research, such as cognitive, affective, and behavioral neuroscience (cf. Koscik & Tranel, 2011).
Nevertheless, researchers have approached trust from a variety of scientific perspectives (such as sociology, psychology, and economics), all of which have their individual history and agenda but have more recently moved in a cross-disciplinary direction. While all of these traditions have mutually highlighted the motivational, behavioral, or structural aspects of trust, they have, according to Guido Möllering (2013), generated “different interpretations of critical situations, highlighting different issues and potential solutions” (p. 13).
As I have noted, the result is a general diffusion of concepts that focus on various aspects and characteristics of trust. According to Rousseau et al. (1998), “disciplinary differences characterizing traditional treatments of trust suggest that inherent conflicts and divergent assumptions are at work” (p. 393). This variety might further lead to the conclusion that trust may be an umbrella term for a number of different phenomena. Terms like “swift trust,” “calculation-based trust,” or “deterrence-based trust” have originated from the literature and have led to different strategies for measuring trust (cf. Lewicki & Brinsfield, 2009).
Indeed, some doubts may be raised as to whether different scholars are talking about the same phenomenon. For instance, Lewis and Weigert have strongly recommended clear distinctions between different research programs, especially in the area of psychological research. According to them,
[t]he fundamental reason for the persistent segregation of these research programs is that trust is a highly complex and multidimensional phenomenon, having distinct cognitive, affective, behavioral, and situational manifestations which may not be co-present at any particular point in time; therefore, it is often far too simplistic to ask whether an individual trusts or distrusts another person or governmental agency. One may trust in some respects and contexts but not others. As a result, when trust is regarded as a psychological state, it is easily confused with other psychological states (hope, faith, behavioral prediction, etc.), and dealt with methodologically in ways which have reductionistic consequences. (Lewis & Weigert, 1985, p. 976)
For this reason, any of the unique contributions that I will present in the following contextualization should be interpreted based on their epistemological foundation. It seems possible to segregate these findings and still aim for a more ←48 | 49→inclusive perspective that helps us to understand the defining characteristics of trust. Even if the approaches differ in detail, they still encourage the idea that trust as a closed entity is part of a very distinct mental process that functions similarly in most individuals and may result in comparable outcomes.16
The earliest noticeable experiments on trust were based on behavioral approaches, in which trust was often understood in terms of rational decisions in situations that featured high risk. Researchers like Morton Deutsch (1958) suggested that individuals relied on trust whenever they needed to cope with uncertain, yet predictable outcomes that might, in the end, lead to a gain or loss of resources.
Often, trust was evaluated in terms of an interactant’s intention, which was further “indicated by cooperative moves by the participant” (Lewicki et al., 2006, p. 995). Researchers used different kinds of game experiments in order to observe trust in social interactions. In the “trust game,” a popular behavioral measure of trust and trustworthiness and a variation of the dictator game, a “trust credit” was given by an isolated individual as part of a decision (cf. Johnson & Mislin, 2011). In the “prisoner’s dilemma game,” mutual trust was thought to affect how two imprisoned members of a gang would incriminate each other if offered mitigation. As Lewicki et al. (2006) have noted, behavioral approaches to trust tend to imply that trust is built entirely on rational thought and that it is caused by a rational evaluation; for this reason, trust was often presumed to begin at zero during interactions.
Critics of behavioral approaches to trust have argued that game situations like the prisoner’s dilemma minimize the role of social interaction and do not include human communication at all. Robert L. Birmingham (1969) has questioned whether the emergence of mutual trust can be explained through rational thought at all, or whether it is only of importance if—and only if—an individual does not have any option of rationality. Furthermore, Luhmann (1979) has noted that “one of the more definite findings of the ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ experiments is that the formation of trust is hindered by the exclusion of communication” (p. 46). In this regard, depending on the perspective, game ←49 | 50→experiments on trust may tell us more about the lack of trust (and the lack of a communicational relation) in social interactions than about trust itself.
In the second half of the 20th century, the exploration of trust moved in a new direction, one in which “psychologists commonly frame their assessment of trust in terms of attributes of trustors and trustees and focus on a host of internal cognitions that personal attributes yield” (Rousseau et al., 1998, p. 393). According to developmental psychologist Paul L. Harris (2007), trust is a cognitive resource that starts to develop as soon as early childhood. Humans need to develop this resource early in order to “establish a cognitive profile of their informants” whenever they have to form “a global impression of each individual, regarding some as more epistemically trustworthy than others” (2007, p. 138). In that regard, children learn to rely on “various heuristics at their disposal for evaluating what they are told” and to further “filter incoming testimony” by others (2007, p. 135).
Following this logic, many scholars believe that individuals differ in their cognitive production of trust based not only on their individual dispositions, beliefs, and attitudes but also on their evaluation of an interactant. This assumption is also a recurring idea in what can be referred to as unidimensional17 definitions of trust (cf. McKnight & Chervany, 2001; Wang & Emurian, 2005). In such definitions, trust is understood as a one-dimensional entity—a single cognitive resource that one can retrieve as part of social interactions.
What unidimensional approaches have in common is that they try to predict how trust cognitively impacts human motivation in social interactions and how it contributes to the management of expectations and the level of confidence18 within the experience of social relationships. For the most part, unidimensional approaches to trust agree that trust is of high importance whenever a person perceives conductional risk or dangers19 in social interactions and makes herself vulnerable to other social actors. In this sense, trust manifests itself in a somewhat cognitive state “comprising the intention to accept vulnerability ←50 | 51→based upon positive expectations of the intentions or behavior of another” (Rousseau et al., 1998, p. 395).
For many researchers in this area, the presence of vulnerability is considered an essential factor for any development of trust. Scholars like Mayer, Davis, and Schoorman (1995) have even related trust to the active “willingness of a party to be vulnerable to the actions of another party based on the expectation that the other will perform a particular action important to the trustor, irrespective of the ability to monitor or control that other party” (p. 712). However, one could argue that people do not necessarily need to be aware of their trust, nor do they need to develop a distinct willingness to exhibit certain conduct toward their interactants. In many situations, they arguably just happen to trust, without any further motivation and strategy behind it—and without being particularly aware of specific risks or dangers.20
In that respect, unidimensional approaches often fail to capture the general complexity of trust (while some will include temporal dimensions, others will attribute the presence of trust only to particular moments); they usually tend to imply that trust will lead to specific singular outcomes such as “risk taking in a relationship” (1995, p. 715). Based on this specific criticism, some scholars hold the opinion that trust may lead not only to one unique outcome but potentially to two basic outcomes.
The main thought behind such two-dimensional approaches is the general idea of trust’s bipolarity (cf. McKnight & Chervany, 2001). In the literature, this is mostly referred to as the difference between “trust” and “distrust”—although some scholars have used the concept of “mistrust”21 instead (cf. Whaley, 2001). Usually, trust is associated with positive effects on social interactions, while ←51 | 52→distrust (or mistrust) is associated with negative effects on interactions (cf. Van De Walle & Six, 2013).
Researchers have not agreed whether distrust is the opposite of trust or an entirely different type of social mechanism. For instance, Barber (1983) has argued that distrust can be defined through its separate functionality and must be considered a separate entity. Many approaches tend to “view trust and distrust as having the same components (cognition, affect, and intention) as the ‘unidimensional’ approach but treat […] ‘trust’ and ‘distrust’ as separate dimensions” (Lewicki et al., 1998, 2006, p. 1002). In the model introduced by Lewicki et al. (1998), trust and distrust are explained in terms of two different types of expectations in social interactions:
In our analysis we define trust in terms of confident positive expectations regarding another’s conduct, and distrust in terms of confident negative expectations regarding another’s conduct. We use the term “another’s conduct” in a very specific, but encompassing, sense, addressing another’s words, actions, and decisions (what another says and does and how he or she makes decisions). (Lewicki et al., 1998, p. 439)
According to the authors, both trust and distrust are continuously present in most interactions, and both can vary in intensity. A relationship featuring “high trust” and “low distrust” can be associated with high faith and confidence and with low skepticism or cynicism; a relationship featuring “low trust” and “high distrust” can be associated with passivity and hesitance and with high vigilance and cynicism; if both high trust and high distrust are present, relationships tend to be highly segmented and bounded; and if there are low or inactive trust and distrust, only limited interdependence is present in the relationship (cf. 1998, p. 445).
While this assumed ambiguity of trust in social relationships is worth further investigation, there are some general shortcomings to two-dimensional approaches to trust. Most importantly, they do not offer a completely new definition of trust and can be best understood as extensions of traditional unidimensional approaches.
Beyond these shortcomings, there may be a more general conceptual problem to two-dimensional approaches. Any theoretical distinction between trust and distrust could be greatly affected by the semantic distinctions that can be found in the colloquial use of these words. In everyday speech, these concepts are naturally opposed to each other. Yet researchers still do not know how trust is constituted and what the basic operating principle of trust is. Taking this into account, there could be several explanations for the perceived dichotomy between trust and distrust in our everyday experience: they could be two ←52 | 53→outcomes of the same process or they could result from entirely different processes; they could also be two particularly extreme examples of a wider range of outcomes. For these reasons, two-dimensional approaches to trust tend to highlight only the potential dynamic range of trust but do not offer a better understanding of its emergence, constitution, or general “behavior.”
To further investigate the complex role of trust in the continuation of social ties, some researchers have introduced approaches to trust that try to capture its changing role in the gradual development of social relationships. Such transformational approaches highlight the idea that trust allows a sense of relatedness to progress through different stages (cf. Lewicki et al., 2006). At their core, transformational approaches still address trust in terms of cognition but divide the trust into different stages. Because of that, transformational approaches focus on the same sense of growing familiarity that scholars like Luhmann or Schütz have previously detected in the context of social relationships (cf. Luhmann, 2001; Schütz, 1974). Researchers consider such familiarity necessary not only for intimate and personal relationships but also for business or more abstract relations (Boon & Holmes, 1996, as cited in Lewicki et al., 2006).
For this reason, transformational approaches demonstrate how an exploration of trust cannot be separated from a general exploration of the sense of relatedness or the experience that a social relationship is occurring—an idea that I have addressed in Chapter 1. These approaches help us to address how the experience or sense of social relationships changes over time and how it underlies complex bonding mechanisms. According to most researchers, the first stage of trust is thought to be based either on “deterrence” or “calculus” (cf. Dietz & Den Hartog, 2006, p. 563). Both concepts highlight the rational attitude with which new relationships can be approached, since most people are careful when they approach strangers or new contacts. They emphasize that trust is of specific value in the early stages of a perceived relationship, especially “when the potential costs of discontinuing the relationship or the likelihood of retributive action outweigh the short-term advantage of acting in a distrustful way” (D. Shapiro, Sheppard, & Cheraskin, 1992, as cited in Lewicki et al., 2006).
Shapiro and colleagues have further assumed that after these early stages, trust moves into a “knowledge-based” stage that is primarily defined by the mutually shared experience of interactants. Commenting on Shapiro et al.’s conceptualization of the knowledge-based stage, Lewicki et al. conclude that even if “the other is predictably unpredictable at times, repeated interactions ←53 | 54→and multifaceted relationships will enhance understanding of the other” (Lewicki et al., 2006, p. 1007).
Finally, the knowledge-based stage is thought to be followed by an “identification-based” stage, which suggests that interactants know each other so well that their sense of reliability (especially regarding conductional routines) is high. In this scenario, both sides are thought to have synchronized their desires and intentions. A mutual understanding exists, so that “one can act for the other” and both “make decisions in each other’s interest” (Lewicki et al., 2006, p. 1007). When trust is active at this stage, it is often referred to as “relational” trust, which highlights the degree of reliability, and even more, the level of dependability, in the process of bonding (cf. Kunnel & Quandt, 2016).
Transformational approaches reveal the gradual interconnectedness of how we predict, rely on, and depend on another party’s conduct, and they allow scholars to consider trust as something that constitutes a positive shift in our experience of others. However, they are still somewhat limited in how precisely they capture trust as a dynamic entity. For one thing, they do not address trust as a single mechanism but mostly offer variations of trust that are thought to replace each other during the progress of a social relationship. Furthermore, the rational frameworks behind most transformational approaches (which place trust largely in the context of business relationships) fail to address any decrease or dynamic behavior of trust within the progress of social relationships.
Because cognitive approaches have undergone a further fragmentation in their conceptualization of trust (into, for example, two-dimensional or transformational approaches), some researchers have focused on more process-oriented views by suggesting that trust must still be considered a singular or unified process. In such approaches, trust is defined not only by cognition but also through social factors—which differentiates it from transformational approaches. As Guido Möllering (2013) has noted, “mental and social processes need to be reconnected eventually [for a full understanding of trust], but research differs across disciplines according to whether mental or social processes are focused on” (p. 3). In that sense, process-oriented approaches to trust can serve as theoretical accumulations of trust’s general mental and social features and allow scholars to integrate different types of knowledge into unified frameworks:
In various parts of the trust research community, a process approach has been advocated but not very often applied explicitly. There is a broad range of options for a “process view,” […] and they all promise important insights. Integration is possible if the ←54 | 55→core question remains one about “trusting” as the process of how people develop the preliminary outcome of “trust.” (Möllering, 2013, p. 13)
In his literature review of process-oriented approaches to trust, Möllering has further identified five recurring types of process views of trust that have been represented in the literature (Möllering, 2013, pp. 5–10).
The first type of process view mainly focuses on how trust (or in his own words “trusting”22) is thought to accompany the progression of social relationships. In the tradition of transformational approaches (cf. Lewicki et al., 2006), scholars assume that trust owns a temporal dimension and needs to be continuously reproduced, since according to Möllering, “any trustful state of mind is preliminary and unfinished” (2013, p. 5). For this reason, trust is thought to change over time, as more or less cognitive effort is put into its formation.
Following the author, a second type of process view of trust is generally based on the idea that trust can be considered part of a specific kind of information processing, which does not happen solely within individual minds “but also in all kinds of social processes of communicating and sense-making […] and is shaped by organizational and institutional contexts as well as social networks” (2013, p. 6). Such process views understand trust as a component of an ongoing communicational relation between social actors that will ultimately result in a degree of familiarity and influence the progress of social relationships over the course of time.
The third type of process view of trust Möllering identified focuses on how growing knowledge about another social actor seems to enhance the level of familiarity in any experience of a social relationship (cf. 2013, p. 7). In that sense, trust is understood as a process that is guided by increasing knowledge in the memory on the part of the interactants. This is significant not only for a perceived sense of familiarity but also for any rational evaluation of social interactions, which, according to Möllering, is usually based on previous experience.
The fourth type of process view Möllering identified focuses on this growing familiarity and intimacy within social relationships, which enables interactants to experience a sense of shared identity and adds a level of commitment and ←55 | 56→agency. He further argues that “people are who they are because of whom they trust and who trusts them, and so the continuous need to work on trust makes ‘trusting’ a developmental project of the self that is never finished” (2013, p. 8). For that reason, process views of trust that highlight its role in an individual’s identification with her interactant largely emphasize how individuals generally relate to their social environment.
Möllering concluded his review with a fifth type of process view that mainly focuses on the role of trust in social structuration. Quoting Gidden’s theory of structuration (Giddens, 1990; cf. Joas, 1986) and Sztompka’s sociological theory of trust (Sztompka, 1999), he suggested that such a perspective allows scholars to emphasize how commitment and agency impact the degree to which trust becomes a social practice between interactants—and how this will further affect the structuring of organizations and societies in general. According to the author, this further implies “that how people trust is a noteworthy element in how social systems are constituted and how they work and develop. At the same time, when people start to trust differently, they start to change the system that has been the reference point for their trust” (2013, p. 10).
In many ways, Möllering’s extensive review of process-oriented approaches to trust summarizes the current state of knowledge about trust. Each process view presents a rather complex picture of how trust is accompanied by both mental and social factors—which have seldom been brought together in the traditional research on trust. However, such approaches usually face the difficulty of aggregating both psychological and social dimensions into one convincing framework. In the case of Möllering’s classification, each type of process view reads like a variation of the others; they cannot be entirely separated. Because the genesis of process-oriented approaches usually lies in the combination and induction of different existing theories, they often fail to produce a new or emergent understanding of trust.
For this reason, they do not offer a whole new perspective but mostly present different interrelated mental and social components of trust. What they lack is an epistemological foundation, a shared operating principle, on whose basis these components can be integrated into a more general theory that is able to include both mental and social aspects of trust. Because of this, process-oriented approaches can provide us with only a general sense of the dynamic formation and behavior of trust, but fail to become more specific about it.←56 | 57→
As the social aspects of trust have become more evident in the overall scientific discourse, more scholars have moved toward exploring trust according to its social impact. One framework that has proven especially valuable is the major role trust plays in the structuring of social networks (cf. Golbeck, 2013). While such network approaches cannot provide a better understanding of the mental aspects of trust, they allow researchers to investigate the general characteristics of trust in communication processes and social interactions. For this reason, network approaches to trust have become increasingly relevant in the context of digital interactions. Following DuBois, Golbeck, and Srinivasan (2011), trust seems increasingly relevant in online interactions, as it is often part of the user’s default mode in such interactions.
In their extensive literature review of network23 approaches to trust (particularly those that focus on online social networks), Sherchan et al. (2013) came to the conclusion that trust as a process can be defined through nine common properties that have reoccurred in the literature.
First, the authors suggested that trust is “context-specific,” arguing that in parts of the literature, trust was usually linked to a given situation, expectation, or outcome.24
Second, the authors argued that trust is “dynamic” and increases or decreases with new experiences, interactions, or observations.
Third, the literature suggested that trust is “propagative,” indicating that information relevant to trust could be “passed from one member to another in a social network, creating trust chains” (2013, pp. 8–9).
Fourth and fifth, the literature described trust as “nontransitive” and “composable,” suggesting that if one person trusts two other interactants, it ←57 | 58→could not be inferred that those two other interactants necessarily trust each other. Trust could be based on the testimony of third parties, such as other members of the social network or other information sources, such as reputational references. Based on the information provided by a third party, individuals could connect with other social actors if they had the feeling that they were directly affected by them.
Sixth, and completely in line with the assumptions presented in the introduction, the literature mostly defined trust as “subjective.” Even if trust affects social dimensions of human interaction, the information processing itself remains highly subjective.
Seventh, and similar to propositions made by scholars like Coleman (1982), trust was understood as something that relies on “asymmetry.” If one person trusts another, this does not necessarily imply that the other person trusts them back. Like Coleman and others, Sherchan et al. assumed that asymmetry offers a “special case for personalization. Asymmetry occur[s] because of differences in peoples’ perceptions, opinions, beliefs, and expectations” (2013, p. 9).
Eighth, trust was defined as “self-reinforcing.” It was generally assumed that “members of a network act positively with other members whom they trust” (2013, p. 9). Ninth and last, the authors suggested that the mutual bonding associated with trust generally takes “a long time to build, but a single high-impact event [could] […] destroy it completely” (2013, p. 10). Consequently, trust could be considered “event-sensitive,” as certain experiences or new information could change the way individuals trusted their interactants.
Summing up, Sherchan et al.’s nine properties allow us to explore trust from a broader perspective and encourage the idea that trust follows a distinct operating principle. On a basic level, some of the properties revealed in their review (such as composability and nontransitivity) are hard to distinguish from the way social networks are more generally impacted by the general experience of social relationships (cf. Chapter 1). In this regard, it seems difficult to define them exclusively as features of trust. Furthermore, the literature has mostly highlighted positive outcomes of trust in social networks; what it lacks is a more nuanced idea of trust that also includes the possibility of negative outcomes.
Nevertheless, there are a few advantages to network approaches, which can provide a better understanding of how trust “feeds” itself on information as part of communicational practices. Without the exchange of information—it can be deduced—trust would not play a significant role in human communication networks. On the basis of information processing, trust offers individuals a flexible value system for their complex social environment—mainly by revealing whom they should or should not be relating to. For this reason, ←58 | 59→network approaches to trust give us a better sense of the “behavior” of trust in social ties and networks, even if they cannot offer particularly new insights on its effect on the cognition and behavior of individuals.
The selection of different approaches to trust that I have presented so far primarily highlight different facets of trust rather than addressing the phenomenon as a whole. As could be seen, the scientific discourse on trust increasingly relies on secondary literature whose primary purpose is to synthesize the broad variety of approaches. Trust has been defined and conceptualized in so many ways that it seems impractical to review all these definitions, as their reference points and epistemologies differ depending on their research tradition. For some scholars, trust results in a simple state, while for others, it can have multiple outcomes. Other scholars attribute to trust not only different outcomes but also various stages within the experience of relationships. What they all agree on is that trust is highly important for our ability to build social relationships with other actors and that it influences our expectations of these actors and our confidence in those relationships. As we have seen, such confidence not only impacts individual behavior but is also thought to affect larger human communication networks.
In the literature presented in this chapter, trust has been defined as a complex social mechanism that impacts both mental and social states. Different scientific approaches to trust have touched many facets of the phenomenon. Following Bernd Blöbaum,
the growing body of literature on trust has generated numerous findings, both on the level of interpersonal trust and societal trust. There is no doubt about the relevance of trust on all levels: from trust in personal relationships and trust in and among organisations to trust as a social glue in contemporary society. (Blöbaum, 2014, p. 14)
A closer examination of the research literature has shown that it might not be entirely satisfactory to define trust as either mental or social; neither is it convincing to regard it as a simple “state.”
Nonetheless, almost all approaches to trust share certain assumptions. One of these is the idea that trust is based on an exchange of information, mainly because we would not be able to trust another social actor if we did not process information about her. This becomes even more evident if we consider that individuals can trust social actors based only on information, without ever having ←59 | 60→interacted with them directly. As scholars like Luhmann (1979) have suggested, a deeper understanding of the basic mechanics behind human communication can help us to better understand why trust might be operating between mental and social states. Apparently, based on the literature review presented in this chapter, the formation of trust can be located somewhere in the domain of human information processing and can be further understood as the result of a communicational relation.
Apart from this, Harris and Koenig (2006) have suggested that trust can be considered an essential part of the mental development of human beings, who must learn to build relationships and process information from different (more or less credible) sources. In that sense, each new interactant marks a new reference point for an individual’s trust. In many ways, the processing of a communicational relation toward other social interactants is natural and rather fundamental to the way people experience their social environment; it allows them to rely on—and relate to—other social actors from early childhood on. Therefore, it might be helpful to consider trust as more than a valuable addition to social interactions. What if trust is an essential part of how people process other social actors—a key to how they make sense of their (social) environment?
Following these questions, I propose that the specific idea of a communicational relation as the foundation of trust is almost identical to the idea that individuals experience the presence of a social relationship with their interactants as part of their information processing (cf. Chapter 1). It makes sense to regard trust as tied to the same communicational relation and information flow that is responsible for the experience of a social relationship. Both trust and the experience of social relationships are part of how our mind processes our social environment, and both provide social ties with a certain meaning and sense of relatedness. Furthermore, both are thought to highly impact the fate of human communication networks on a larger scale, since they both contribute to the interconnectivity of individuals.
With this in mind, it seems possible to further investigate trust from a communication-centric point-of-view, one that considers human information processing the main driving force behind its emergence and formation. To do this, it will be necessary to provide, with the help of communication theory, an epistemological foundation. The main interest of communication theory is to disclose the basic operating principles behind human communication and information processing. As François Cooren has noted, such a communication-centric perspective can be used to explain a number of things:←60 | 61→
We live in a globalized world of new medias, social networks, emerging forms of journalism, and new designs of our information environment[.] […] But beyond this new sociotechnological reality, I could not help but think that putting communication at the center could also be interpreted as an invitation to think communicatively about the world, that is, to affirm the specificity and originality of our field vis-a’-vis its sister disciplines, whether we think of anthropology, psychology, sociology, or even philosophy. (Cooren, 2012, p. 1)
The construction of a particular communication theory is a specific type of creative problem solving and often requires what Hagen, Frey, and Koch (2015) have referred to as “systematic speculation”25 (p. 130). Following the authors, such speculation usually includes various kinds of research literature, empirical data, subjective or scientific theories, personal experience, or theoretical structures. Furthermore, its interdisciplinary nature can allow us to address and connect the shared boundaries of the different traditions dealing with trust and to integrate the knowledge of other disciplines (cf. Karmasin, Rath, & Thomaß, 2014). In the context of this book, it allows us to touch upon a variety of issues related to trust and the experiencing of social relationships, such as human memory (cf. Chapter 4) and the role of confidence (cf. Chapter 5) in social interactions. For all of these reasons, the goal of this book is to work as an interdisciplinary link to a cross-disciplinary field in which “separate disciplines [are considered] most distinctive from each other by virtue of their special discipline-bound analytical problems” (Dubin, 1969, p. 245).
In this particular context, the concept of communication refers not only to the things people say, write, experience, or perceive but may also include the transfer of ideas, emotions, reflections, epistemic beliefs, cultures, or knowledge (cf. Cooren, 2012, para. 12). These are all elements of how individuals process and exchange information and construct their realities toward other actors. Communication theory, then, can help us to locate trust in the realms of human information exchange and address the specific ways individuals process their interactants based on these information flows. Above all, it allows us to rethink the formation and emergence of trust as a result of the exchange and transfer of information from beginning to end.
Starting with the beginning, Chapter 3 will address the basic stimulus to trust and the general experiencing of social relationships: the processing of an interactant’s “social presence.”←61 | 62→
9 In the context of my argumentation, the word conduct shall include not only an actor’s behavior, but also the way an actor emotes or participates in that situation.
10 It is important to note that Frevert has depicted only the German etymology of the noun Vertrauen, which even more than its English counterpart, trust, addresses the social dimension of the phenomenon. While the English trust is often applied to human interactants, but can also refer to the reliability and credibility of information and other nonhuman reference points, Vertrauen refers specifically to the presence of an experienced or sensed social relationship with human entities. In order to refer to the reliability or credibility of information or nonhuman reference points, the verb trauen is usually used instead of vertrauen.
11 My translation from the original German.
12 My translation from the original German.
13 Parts of this section are taken from a previous article on relational trust by Kunnel and Quandt (Kunnel & Quandt, 2016) and used with permission.
14 Granovetter defined social ties based on their reciprocal services, time, emotional intensity, and intimacy. In the literature, additional features such as social distance, emotional support, and the social structure itself have been investigated (cf. Golbeck, 2013, pp. 66–68). These are primarily features of undirected ties. Although there are several open questions regarding the strength of directed ties (cf. Ruef, 2002, pp. 430–432), it can be assumed that the strength of directed ties can be measured through directed features such as participation, support, and emotional involvement.
15 Social capital describes the entirety of current or potential resources in a social network that are characterized by a sense of belonging as part of their infrastructure (Bourdieu, 1983, p. 191). In that sense, the positive confidence associated with trust is considered a valuable resource for cooperation or collaboration within a community, as it implies shared values and attitudes (Sherchan et al., 2013, p. 47:14–15).
16 While the following classification is mainly the result of my own contextualization, it may, in parts, comply with the secondary literature provided by Sherchan and colleagues (2013), Lewicki and colleagues (1998), as well as Rousseau and colleagues (1998), who have all offered very helpful insights into the issue of trust research.
17 The distinction between unidimensional, two-dimensional, and transformational approaches is taken from Lewicki et al.’s (2006) classification of trust approaches.
18 For a further exploration of the relation between trust and confidence, see Chapter 5.5.
19 For a further differentiation between the concepts of risk and danger, see Chapters 5.1–5.3.
20 Apart from these shortcomings, Mayer et al. have highlighted the general significance of actor-related information and the “complex intrapersonal states associated with trust” (Lewicki et al., 2006, p. 992). Furthermore, they suggest that trust is impacted by the perception of actor-related information, such as the ability, benevolence, or integrity of an interactant (R. C. Mayer et al., 1995, p. 715). Hence, their framework supports the assumption that trust is based on informational exchanges and a communicational relation with an interactant.
21 While there is no clear distinction, mistrust is often used to refer to either a lack of trust or negative expectations, while distrust is defined in terms of a distinct sense of skepticism.
22 Möllering has used the term trusting to address the process behind trust. For the sake of clarity, I will continue to refer to trust instead of trusting. Furthermore, I have paraphrased Möllering’s findings instead of using his own classification of trusting as continuing, processing, learning, becoming, and constituting, as such terminology might be highly confusing in the context of this book.
23 According to Sherchan and colleagues, the concept of social networks was first introduced by J.A. Barnes, “who describes them as connected graphs where nodes represent entities and edges their interdependencies” (Sherchan et al., 2013, p. 1). In this sense, a social network is a system that consists, in its entirety, of social actors and their relations. Consequently, such a framework features a systemic structure that seems most fitting when we want to analyze social phenomena that affect an individual’s perception such as trust.
24 As I have suggested, this assumption can be challenged to a degree, especially if we assume that trust is a general property of human relationships. Instead, it seems more appropriate to assume that trust becomes most salient in specific situations that feature a heightened sense of danger or opportunity, but is generally “switched on” in the experience of social relationships.
25 Translated from the German expression systematische Spekulation.