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Trust and Communication: Foundations of Interconnectivity

Anil Jacob Kunnel

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.

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When was the last time you trusted someone?

While this may seem like a fairly simple question, answering it is not as easy as it seems. Most people will need a moment to recollect a specific occasion. Was it really trust that was at play in that situation?

Often, it is not entirely clear exactly when (and under what circumstances) we have trusted someone. Is trust something we extend to that person only in certain situations, or is it something we do all the time? Does the trust emerge from oneself, or is the other person also responsible for it? Usually, it is not trust but the disturbance of trust that is well remembered; for many people, trust becomes a serious issue whenever they feel they have lost it. This could be the result of a disappointing interaction with someone who turned out to be unreliable; or worse, we might feel that another person has actively betrayed us. In these situations, trust becomes an issue when it is gone—and when it is time to reevaluate our sense of relatedness with a particular person or social actor.

One difficulty in determining precisely when we have trusted someone (and when we have not) is that trust itself may seem almost invisible to our perception. For most of us, it appears to be a quality of connection that allows us to feel safe and secure—a feeling of relatedness and confidence, especially in close relationships. Usually, however, we are not consciously aware of this. In fact, we may find it difficult to explain what the connection is based on—or why we made it in the first place.

Given that trust seems both highly relevant and highly invisible, it is not surprising that scholars from various scientific disciplines have attempted to explore the issue. While a lot of trust research has confirmed the functionality of trust and its significant impact on cognition and behavior, the topic is often approached through theoretical assumptions, descriptions, or categorizations instead of precise definitions. Most scholars are struggling to explain exactly what is happening within us whenever we trust or distrust another social actor.

One reason for this might be our relatively limited knowledge of how the brain contributes to our level of trust. We still know very little about the influence of trust on the core mechanics of human information processing, interaction, and perception. More importantly, there is no clear evidence that trust leads to specific outcomes or even that it is always of a generally positive nature.

Because of these limitations, many scholars have put a lot more effort into the exploration of what makes social actors appear trustworthy. These explorations ←15 | 16→of trustworthiness have tended to deal with what makes a social actor seem reliable (and to some degree credible) as an interactional partner. Nevertheless, the investigation of what makes a person trustworthy and the investigation of why we trust in the first place are two different scientific endeavors.

While both trust and trustworthiness are associated with a sense of security in social interactions, each seems to emerge from a different source. The concept of trustworthiness appears to be more naturally suited for empirical research, because it seems easier to measure whether participants in a study experience a stranger to be trustworthy than to measure how much they “trust” the stranger. It therefore seems highly problematic that, increasingly, many assumptions about trust result from the growing research on trustworthiness. As I will highlight in this book, the central premise articulated in these types of investigations can be paraphrased as: Individuals trust social actors whom they regard as trustworthy.

While there might be correlations between the emergence of trust and the experience of trustworthiness, it seems too early to propose a direct causal link. Before we can empirically explore how trust and trustworthiness are related, we need to have a rigorous definition of trust, and to know what its constituents are, where it originates, how it operates, and how it can be measured empirically.

The dichotomy between trust and trustworthiness first occurred to me when I started working at an interdisciplinary research group on the relation between trust, communication, and digitized environments. I had already become familiar with the problems of users to develop trust online when I analyzed the user experience and interaction at a social networking startup as part of a research project. It turned out that the introduction of reputation systems and the automated distribution of trustworthiness cues were often not enough to produce a level of trust among users. More factors had to be taken into consideration.

Trying to make sense of trust and trustworthiness was part of a general confusion about trust as a scientific concept and the variety of definitions surrounding it. Encouraged by the ongoing cross-disciplinary conversation, I decided to further explore the issue of trust formation from an interdisciplinary perspective. On a very pragmatic level, I concluded that both the theoretical discourse and empirical research on trust would benefit from such an endeavor. The interdisciplinary context allowed me to access the various research traditions surrounding trust and consider the psychology behind trust, the sociology of trust, and the economic significance of trust.

As someone trained in the communication sciences and somewhat familiar with the concept of trust in my own area, it became clear to me that while all the ←16 | 17→academic disciplines have their own unique backgrounds and are based on various belief systems, they share a lot of assumptions about trust. Furthermore, other disciplines confirm the role of communication (such as interpersonal and public communication, digital and analog communication, and human and nonhuman communication) in the activity of trust. Most of the writing about trust in these fields also highlights the role of human information processing. Nonetheless, many scholars shy away from further clarifying the extent to which trust is tied to human communication. Feeling this topic deserved more attention, I decided to focus on the way that communication is related to trust as the main topic this book.

Since most of the communication sciences are located at the threshold between the humanities and social sciences nowadays, parts of my argumentation are highly eclectic. Eclecticism can be a helpful tool whenever we need to deal with the complexity of an interdisciplinary or cross-disciplinary discourse; it allows us to consider insights from different disciplines and put them into context.

The aim of this book is to propose a shared, communication-centric epistemology for the exploration of trust—a scientific belief system that allows us to understand the basic role of communication, human information processing, and what I shall refer to as social interference in the general experience of social relationships (and by this I mean the experience or sense of being in a social relationship) and of trust in particular. The main idea presented in this book is that the human brain might inhabit the computational power to create a “social multiverse” from the information that it processes about others, and that this “social mapping” allows our consciousness to perceive unique actor-specific relations to other people.

Above all, I wrote this book to introduce a new direction for a possible theoretical understanding of trust. Consequently, its main purpose is to ask questions, not to provide definitive statements that run the risk of ignoring the complexities of trust as a research subject.

The shift to online communication in many areas of life has introduced a completely new setting to which trust research can be applied. The levels and types of information processing have notably changed and so has the need to conceptualize trust as something that can be also triggered through digital communication and media.

Furthermore, we cannot decipher the constituents of trust without a proper understanding of why and how individuals experience social relationships. As it turns out, both trust and the experience of social relationships are highly dependent on each other. For both scholars and nonscholars, this interdependency ←17 | 18→has never been more evident than it is today. An increasingly digitized and globalized world allows us to experience social relationships on an unprecedented scale and to trust (or realize we do not trust) social actors as part of such relationships.

While the number of digital communication channels is steadily growing, our society is confronted with a new awareness of the benefits and potential dangers of social interactions and has a heightened attention to the issue of trust. The feeling of trust seems to be highly reliant on what we know about each other and the channels through which we communicate.

We are obliged to investigate how new communication structures can alter and shape our sense of relatedness and our feeling of security in interactions with others. More specifically, we need to better understand the ways in which communication is responsible for trust and the human experience of social relationships.

For this reason, I will further investigate the role of communication and information processing in the emergence of trust and social relationships in the course of this book. I will ask how trust is constituted and communicated as a functional component of the general experience of such relationships. Admittedly, this is a rather broad research question. Nevertheless, an investigation of the communication behind trust will allow us to better understand its significance in modern digitized societies. Because human communication networks have become increasingly crucial, not only for the lives of individuals but also for the overall structuration of societies, it is necessary that we acquire this understanding. To achieve this goal, this book is structured as follows:

Chapter 1 argues that trust and the individual experience of social relationships share the same origin and should be understood as essential components of human communication networks. On the basis of seven basic assumptions on their formation and general role in such networks, the chapter serves as a starting point for my argumentation and introduces the reader to the scientific belief system behind this book.

Chapter 2 addresses the extensive body of literature on trust that has emerged from other fields of research arguing that trust is linked to the social experience of relatedness and that, in most approaches to trust, communication is considered a significant element in its emergence.

Chapter 3 approaches trust and the general experience of social relationships with the help of communication theory and identifies the social presence of an interactant as the primary information source and stimulus.

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Chapter 4 addresses the further processing of what I shall refer to as social interference and the memorization of relational information as the main driving forces behind the experience of both social relationships and trust.

Chapter 5 explains how trust can be understood as an algorithmic programming in the brain that triggers the automated retrieval of relational confidence during social interactions.

Chapter 6 illustrates how a supply of relational confidence can produce an ease of conduct and lower our awareness of conductional risk as part of social interactions.

Chapter 7 goes on to explore the role of public mediators in trust and the notion of trustworthiness as a common alternative to trust that emerges from the distributed intelligence within human communication networks.

To conclude, Chapter 8 discusses the final implications of this epistemological framework and proposes a new direction in the exploration of trust and social relationships based on a theory of social interference.

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