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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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7 Trust and Mass Communication

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7 Trust and Mass Communication

Trust’s Function in Mediated Environments and the Role of Trustworthiness as a Collective Reference Category

Following the arguments made in this book, we can assume that in a world devoid of any implicit confidence, many of us would be quickly overwhelmed by the level of conductional vigilance in social interactions. Since social interactions are highly complex, ambiguous, and uncertain, our working memory would be extremely busy trying to figure out interactional contingencies.

The ability to experience coherent social relationships is a way of organizing and making sense of these eventualities on a more subliminal and basic level. The essential point here is that individuals do not actively choose to trust or distrust other social actors, nor do they deliberately experience social relationships; rather, these are an implicit and mostly subconscious part of how they make sense of their social environment in general. The experience of social interference allows the human mind to subconsciously navigate its social environment—much as it subconsciously navigates the physical environment through sound and sight. In the same way that individuals move physically between places, we can assume that consciousness can mentally move between different social universes, each with its own individual rules and realities. If someone is particularly good at this, it might offer him a greater scope of action and provide him with an ease of conduct in social interactions. This might be especially helpful in the emergence of new or expanding communication networks.

7.1 Trust in the Light of Expanding Human Communication Networks

Due to an increasingly globalized and digitized environment, many individuals are confronted with a new variety and quantity of social ties. As in the case of digital environments, it is often difficult to rely on behavioral etiquette or to develop behavioral confidence, since conductional routines may not yet have been established. Considering the rapid evolution and spread of the technology, many online users need to rely on their processing of social interference to navigate these social resonance spaces with an ease of conduct. Even outside of ←157 | 158→digital communication channels, many individuals rely on a dyadic worldview to approach their complex social environments with an ease of conduct.

A good example of this is the way individuals engage in political activity (such as voting), which is often motivated more by individual processing of social interference with a political candidate or party than it is by an individual’s actual political knowledge (cf. Sandvoss, 2012). The implicit retrieval of relational confidence is a somewhat intuitive and easy way for our mind to engage with other actors—especially when the relation is perceived as rather abstract. Voting for a political candidate based on a feeling of relatedness allows individuals to avoid the complexities of politics in general as well as the contingencies of their own behavior. On a very basic level, it spares them from any additional cognitive workload.

Even though some scholars have addressed the importance of trust for the general functioning of societies (cf. Blöbaum, 2014), it is hard to make such broad statements. Similar to the concept of mutual trust, the thoughts presented so far indicate that there is no such thing as “general” or “public” trust. Therefore, scholars should be careful with general assumptions concerning the trust of the public or the general loss of trust (cf. Kerbusk et al., 2015). As we have seen, trust affects the minds of individuals and cannot be easily attributed to the public. While it can contribute to political engagement or a sense of collective identity and personal investment in human communication networks (cf. Simon, 2011), it can also contribute to paranoia and a conspiracy culture (cf. Aupers, 2012).

Although many scholars suggest that trust is absolutely “crucial” for many areas of life and for the functioning of societal systems (cf. Quandt, 2012, para. 8), this may be a hasty judgment. For instance, if an organization (or society) relies on the trust of its employees (or citizens), this could also reveal systemic inefficiencies and organizational problems. Employees would have to rely on their interoceptive sensations to do their job, which may not be the most efficient way of working. Whenever individuals rely on their implicit and often intuitive establishment of relational confidence, the outcome is somewhat unpredictable, even to themselves; it is nothing that they can switch on or off. What we need to remember is that trust can retrieve not only confidence based on positive types of interference that facilitates ease of conduct but also confidence based on negative types of interference that will facilitate similar ease.

Furthermore, trust is not a new or specifically modern phenomenon. After all, we can easily imagine pre-modern times in which individuals trusted each other in the same way that we trust one another today. As a mental algorithm, trust must be considered an essential part of how individuals perceive their social environment. For this reason, we must assume that the fundamental ←158 | 159→operating principle behind trust’s supply of relational confidence in human interaction has always been the same.

What may have changed, though, is the general idea of what constitutes a social relationship. As suggested in Chapters 1 and 2, the general assumption of which social actors individuals can (and cannot) relate to has undergone significant shifts as part of the more complex social structuration of modern societies and their expanding communication networks (cf. Giddens, 1990; Misztal, 1996). Above all, a dyadic framework allows individuals to make sense even of the most sophisticated and abstract relations in their daily routine; it allows them to perceive social relationships even without the involvement of direct interaction. Chapter 6 has shown that trust might significantly contribute to the transformation of organizational or societal structures—whenever new bonds and types of relations (or connections) emerge and new behavioral routines are established. Therefore, a changing definition of what constitutes a social relationship can lead to new types of social ties and interactions.

Arguably, the experience of a social relationship offers an efficient mental framework for an exchange of information that may change dynamically due to socio-cultural factors, as well as a shifting understanding of whom one can relate to. Because individuals perceive their social environments as multiverses, we must assume that they are capable of mentally switching between various social relationships and are capable of extending their multiverse through the experience of social relationships and trust. Depending on which private or public mediators and sources they use, and depending on the scope of their networks, individuals may process the social presences of other actors in different ways and therefore experience different types of social interference.

7.2 Trust and Public Mediators

With the help of mass communication, public mediators—institutions or actors who mass distribute content to larger audiences—have taken on an essential role in distributing actor-related information and drawing attention to certain actors (cf. Waldherr, 2012). Since they are substantially exposed to actor-related information in complex mediated environments, many individuals have learned to rely on such mediators in their general perception of social actors. Often, these mediators are the traditional mass media, such as the press, public relations departments, or the advertising industry; more recently, less conventional public mediators, such as online forums and online social networks have emerged as digital social resonance spaces (Allcott & Gentzkow, 2017). As ←159 | 160→Quandt (2012) has suggested, both traditional and new media now seem to be competing for the audience’s attention.

If we take into account the immediacy of social media applications (and the way users can post and receive frequent updates and personal information), it seems plausible that they hold a greater potential for the processing of social interference because of the distribution of multidirectional network presences (cf. Chapter 3). On a very basic level, individuals’ supply of actor-related information can be highly formative in terms of how they process their social environment. Scholars like Giddens (1990) and Luhmann (1979) have noted that many modern social interactions rely on our trust in systemic actors who cannot be easily experienced or perceived without the help of public mediators (cf. Chapter 2). What we need to remember at this point is that many individuals process social interference with such actors not because they have chosen to do so but because they have experienced an extension of their social environment through the distribution of information.

Following these assumptions, public mediators such as newspapers, magazines, television and radio stations, and online networks and forums can greatly impact how individuals experience social interference and may impart to them an ease of conduct toward certain actors. If trust is part of a mental algorithm that does not operate by explicit rational evaluation, but is instead based on implicit and often interoceptive signals, this suggests that individuals can experience social interference, and further trust or distrust individual social actors just by being exposed to public mediators and without necessarily being aware of it.

In many ways, trust is part of our body’s elemental response to its exposure to other individuals. It is directly linked to how individuals identify with others and how their identity is constructed by the exposure to actor-related information; the way we feel related to other social actors and relate to them is directly tied to how we perceive ourselves (cf. Chapter 1). For this reason, the construction of human identity may work differently whenever individuals are exposed to larger communication structures and a high number of potential social ties. Without their noticing it, the processing of actor-related information through mediated channels can impact how individuals relate to specific actors, how biased they are in their interaction with them, and how much ease of conduct accompanies this biased interaction. In highly mediatized (and digitalized) environments, it might actually be more difficult to not produce any relational confidence and establish an implicit ease of conduct toward other actors. Trust remains an effective and efficient shortcut for the mind to avoid conductional ←160 | 161→vigilance; it is easier to develop a gut feeling than to seek new information or build rational expectations.

A good example of trust’s power is the type of polarization that occurs in online comments. In discussions on social media or in the comment sections of online news sites, which according to Reich (2011b) are participatory spaces, user comments can be strongly driven by how related users feel toward specific social actors or toward each other (cf. Kunnel, 2015). In such cases, part of the commentator’s social performance may be driven less by the need to engage in a thoughtful discussion and more by their experience of positive or negative social interference (cf. Garcia, Mendez, Serdült, & Schweitzer, 2012).63 Just the presence of a visual cue like a user’s profile picture will make it easier to experience relational confidence (cf. Liu, Preot, & Ungar, 2016).

While these are just examples, hopefully they emphasize the ways our minds can be tricked into the experience of social interference. Especially when confronted with high levels of complexity, audiences and recipients may need to become aware of their trusting activity and learn how to consciously disconnect from their implicit supply of relational confidence in certain situations. Instead of trusting, they would need to train themselves cognitively—and through the inference of heuristic principles—with the goal of approaching these situations rationally through expectations (cf. Renn et al., 2007). In many situations, it might be better for individuals not to rely on their brain’s ability to trust or distrust other actors.

Because the distribution of actor-related information through word-of-mouth, traditional mass media, or social media can often be misleading or false (cf. Allcott & Gentzkow, 2017), we must consider our retrieval of relational confidence as somewhat vulnerable to persuasive strategies. According to Falcone, Singh, and Tan (2001), trust can be manipulated to such a degree that individuals implicitly build relationships toward artificial agents in virtual settings, even if such agents are not real individuals.64

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To fully understand trust as a mental algorithm, it may not be enough to ask how individuals process actor-related information—we must also ask how this input is “served” to them as a potential trigger. For many people, the experience of social interference can sometimes be very effective in the reduction or bypassing of conductional vigilance, but at other times it may be totally misleading. Researchers need to explore how different types of communication channels and different types of media affect our experience of social interference. They need to explore further how mass-communicated information flows can trigger the experience of social interference among individuals and how this impacts their supply of relational confidence. Noticeably, many services that have emerged as part of the online sharing economy are designed to connect users based on a sense of shared identity so that they can share personal properties, such as their apartments or cars (cf. Kerbusk et al., 2015; Tanz, 2014). In light of these developments, we must further explore how these services penetrate the user’s trust.

It is impossible to make any definite statements about the opportunities and dangers of trusting or distrusting other social actors in mediated or digitalized environments; there is nothing fundamentally right or wrong with relying on one’s trust. All we can conclude at this moment is that in the social resonance space of digital environments, individuals face a high number of opportunities to process other actors’ social presence and build coherent relationships toward them (cf. Chapter 1). With the help of public mediators and by relying on their trust, they can extend or narrow their social multiverse and scope of conduct.

7.3 Reliability, Consistency, and Transparency in the Reception of Public Mediators

Although it is necessary to take the highly subjective nature of trust into account, we can assume that ease of conduct plays an essential role in how individuals engage or disengage in social ties that are more modern and abstract in nature. As I have noted, trust allows individuals to implicitly and subconsciously bypass or reduce conductional vigilance on a very instinctive basis. Chapter 6 showed that the way individuals produce relational confidence can play a primary role in the emergence and breakup of social ties and may affect the set-up of larger structures such as communities, social networks, or organizations.

Even if it seems extremely difficult to predict the structural outcome of the processing of social interference for a social group (as we would face the challenge of chaos theory), it might still be possible to explore the influence of trust ←162 | 163→on larger social structures. Furthermore, we might ask if it makes a difference whether actor-related information is received through various communication channels such as social media, advertisements, and other types of mediators, or even through word-of-mouth. While mediators can appear on any level, it seems plausible to assume that public mediators have a special role in the exposure of certain public actors, as they supply larger public arenas with actor-related information (cf. Imhof, 2008).

Given the increasing media literacy among audiences, one might legitimately question whether recipients are fully capable of depending on public mediators as distributors of actor-related information (cf. Sandvoss, 2012). This is an issue of reliability. As audiences grow media savvy, they also have become more critical of such representations, not only in traditional types of mass communication, such as television and newspapers but also in newer technologies such as social media. While in its early days, the World Wide Web was home to a small community of scientists and users could who could trust each other, online communication has since grown so fast that users may find it difficult to rely on the actor-related information they find there. Users who process the network presence of a public actor (such as a celebrity or politician) on social media, may find only a small resemblance to that actor in these posts, as if they were written by a ghostwriter or were created using algorithms (cf. Pariser, 2011). Beyond this, they may perceive biases in the way mediators report on certain actors and position themselves in relation to them. Taking all of this into account, many recipients are aware that even though their mind processes social interference, the representation of the public actor may not be authentic—as his public image and reputation may have been altered.

Beyond the issue of reliability, a second issue might be of importance for the recipient’s ability to process social presence through public mediators: the issue of consistency. With multiple contradictory sources, individuals are confronted with a new set of ambiguities, uncertainties, and complexities. To illustrate this, let me use a simple example drawn from an everyday situation.

Imagine that one day at work, you are informed that you will soon get a new colleague, Anna. She is going to work closely with you, as you both share the same expertise. The first thing you do is to research her work experience online, where you will find some information about her—some photos, her social media profiles, and even an interview with her in a newspaper. Even if you do not know her personally, you might start to process something like a relation to her based on the experience of social interference (which could, for example, be driven by a sense of commonality as well as competitiveness). You then ask your colleagues if they know anything about Anna. One person knows ←163 | 164→her personally, since they have studied together. He describes her as a friendly, laid-back person with great taste in music. A second colleague knows her only from collaboration and describes her as superficial, fake, and highly competitive; he says that she lacks integrity and cannot be trusted. In fact, he advises you to be careful when dealing with Anna, as she might even be a threat to your position. After these conversations, you ask yourself what to make of your new colleague. Even if you came to the (rational) conclusion to postpone any judgment until you meet her in person, your brain has already tried to process her social presence.

This example illustrates that the processing of social presence can ultimately suffer from inconsistencies that emerge from contradictory information. Once a social actor is experienced publicly, our perception of his image and reputation is usually based on a variety of public mediator information sources. In the example of Anna, the processing of her social presence will most likely change once you and she begin to work with each other. However, this is less of an option for the perception of social actors whom we perceive only unidirectionally and through mediated channels. For instance, the reputation of a politician can be different on social media than it is in the news, or among our peers in a group discussion at a pub. Because of this, the high number of information sources in mass-mediated environments can strongly impact our sense of consistency and may add further conductional vigilance.

The same can be said about the third and last issue that I would like to address in this context: the issue of transparency. In the communication-centric context of this book, transparency specifically refers to the level of density of actor-related information. Some public actors might be more present and transparent to us than others. For instance, one politician might be covered frequently in the news while another barely appears there. Hence, a higher degree of transparency in mediated environments may allow individuals to process the social presence of some actors more smoothly than others. Furthermore, the perceived level of transparency may determine how much individuals know about an interactant in the first place and how intense and immediate the actor will appear to them.

If, for instance, the two leading candidates for the presidential election are perceived in their media coverage to have different degrees of transparency, we might ask how this will impact our processing of the candidates’ social presence and level of social interference, as well as our general level of attention toward the perception of information about these actors. This should not suggest that more transparency is necessarily better, as a higher information density can ←164 | 165→also impact our level of conductional vigilance.65 For example, it could reveal more personal and intimate details that would otherwise not be of any interest. Public mediators can heavily influence their audiences’ perception of transparency merely by the amount and type of attention they give certain actors (cf. Krastev, 2013).

Taking all this into account, communication scholars need to further investigate the ways public mediators impact the experience of social relationships and the experience of social interference among individuals. It is necessary to remember here that the reliability of public mediators, the consistency in the distribution of actor-related information, and the transparency of these actors may supply individuals with different and often multiple types of stimuli that impact not only their perceptual but also their cognitive and motoric systems (as suggested in Chapter 4). A lack of or change in factors such as reliability, consistency, and transparency might lead to irritations that could manifest themselves in very basic reactions, such as a general difficulty of comprehension in the sensory registry or in overall perception. Simply speaking, individuals could be irritated or overwhelmed whenever they process inconsistent, nontransparent, and unreliable actor-related information and experience further conductional vigilance.

7.4 Trustworthiness as a Substitute to Trust in Social Interactions

In many areas of life, especially in the realm of mass mediated communication, individuals are faced with the limitations of trust and the realization that that their gut feeling might be wrong. Because the perception of the unreliability, nontransparency, and inconsistency of public mediators can lead to a new experience of conductional vigilance, we must ask whether individuals can produce ←165 | 166→enough relational confidence to bypass this new level of vigilance. For some individuals, trust may be enough to interact with or respond to such actors with ease, even if they are literate enough to know about the potential flaws in their media coverage. However, others may struggle to rely on their trust under such circumstances, because the irritation may be so great they find it hard to experience any social interference and to further reciprocate with actors who appear to them only through mediated channels.

Because of this, individuals may actively seek further assistance to build rational expectations toward social actors with whom they want to continue to reciprocate. The best way to do this is to access the knowledge of others. We might ask mutual friends for their opinion about a social actor or do an online search to find out whether we would be able to relate to him (as we did with our friend Anna), or read the news to learn more about a public person. All of these sources (our friends, the websites, the social media profiles, the news reports) can function as mediators that can provide us with actor-related information to actively assist our social performance; through them, we might be able to experience social interference with other actors.

But they can provide more than an extension of the interactant’s social presence. Remember the colleague who said that Anna lacked integrity and could not be trusted? He was not only describing her as a person; he was also specifically calling attention to the issue of conductional vigilance. In doing so, he advised us to be careful in our further social interactions with her, because her reputation might have produced a false image, one that is too positive. Our colleague’s advice is particularly helpful because he was able to reflect on what it was like to actually work with Anna and used more abstract categories (such as her integrity or loyalty) to refer to her. The use of such categories made it possible for him to give us a distinct impression of what to expect from her and how to make rational predictions about her behavior. It helped us to estimate Anna’s trustworthiness.66

In our daily routine, information that will give us an impression of an actor’s trustworthiness is not exchanged only in personal conversations (as in the example); it might also appear in user ratings and recommendations online or in traditional mass-mediated content such as a discussion on a television talk show. Some of these sources will be more private in nature, while others will ←166 | 167→address their audience publicly. In all of these scenarios, the discussion of an actor’s trustworthiness can tell us what to expect in case we socially engage with them. Such inferences can give us a coherent sense of what we are to experience with this actor and what type of conduct can be expected from them. They might further give us an idea of their sense of belonging and affiliation, which might be substantive to our intention to further engage with them. All of these factors are usually important for experiencing social interference and memorizing relational information on our own—only this time, the information is coming from another source as part of a recommendation. We do not have to experience the interactant ourselves but can use a third party’s testimonial to rationally predict whether our potential interactant is trustworthy or not.

Across the literature, trustworthiness is often understood as a prerequisite or determinant to trust; individuals are thought to evaluate other social actor’s trustworthiness cues in order to build positive expectations to “trust” them (cf. Chapter 2). This is a very common approach in the history of trust research and can be traced back to the tradition of behavioral psychology and game theory. While the logic presented in that tradition (individuals “trust” other actors based on their “trustworthiness”) seems plausible from a rational perspective, I have argued that trust, as a part of the basic algorithmic programming in the human brain, does not require a rational evaluation of the working memory. All this suggests that the relation between trustworthiness and trust may be more complicated than scholars have previously suggested; as concepts, they might not even be directly related to each other and might serve different functions. For this reason, let me elaborate on their differences. It will allow us to make better sense of how trustworthiness categories can help to supplement our trust, especially in highly mediated environments.

7.5 Trustworthiness as a Product of Collective Memory

The main difference between trust and trustworthiness is simple: at its core, trust allows individuals to produce relational confidence. Trustworthiness, on the other hand, is a type of information category that refers to the “worthiness” of a social actor. In that sense, trustworthiness can be understood as a reference category that is part of a collective testimonial about another social actor that can be used as a foundation of rational expectations toward that actor. It is also strongly tied to the linguistic—and morphological—potential of a language to refer to such “worthiness.” To successfully make this distinction, it seems essential to remember that there are two different ways our mind can ←167 | 168→deal with conductional vigilance: through the implicit retrieval of confidence or the explicit and rational building of expectations (cf. Chapter 5). While trust on the one hand implicitly produces a type of confidence, trustworthiness, on the other, helps us to explicitly build rational expectations toward an actor.

Trustworthiness categories can, for example, be an actor’s credibility, benevolence, integrity or honesty but also his malevolence or dishonesty (cf. Colquitt et al., 2007; R. C. Mayer et al., 1995). All of these examples refer to the idea that the interactants are coherent and somewhat predictable in their interactions. As a type of information category, trustworthiness can be a part of an interactant’s image or reputation but is not necessarily a determinant to trust. Arguably, individuals do not need to rely on their trust if they can rationally produce a high level of positive expectation based on an interactant’s assumed trustworthiness. Instead of relying on a gut feeling, their working memory can access what others have said about, or experienced with, another social actor.67

Note that trustworthiness is not a traditional actor-related information category (cf. Chapter 3), since it includes the experience of a third party; someone else tells us what it is like to interact with a specific actor, we do not experience it ourselves. Consequently, any information that addresses the trustworthiness of an actor is part of an explicit collective conversation that addresses the heuristic principles through which we cognitively evaluate our interactants. It does not allow us to directly and implicitly perceive the social presence of this actor; it allows us only to observe the actor cognitively—and rationally—through the eyes of others as part of a shared reference system. Therefore, trustworthiness categories are not a part of an interactant’s experienced or perceived social presence; rather, they allow us to build rational expectations toward our social interactions and can be helpful in assisting our social performance. Arguably, this is possible only if individuals are surrounded by communication structures that allow them to distribute and access this type of information as the result of distributed intelligence and as part of what some scholars refer to as collective memory (cf. Dyson, 1999; Weldon & Bellinger, 1997). The term refers to a shared pool of information between two or more people that allows individuals to retrieve knowledge through collaborative media such as online networks, word of mouth, or digital databases.

As noted, individuals might face challenges or limitations in their ability to trust other actors in larger human communication networks. Thus, the ←168 | 169→introduction of trustworthiness categories can work both as compensation for and as an alternative to relational confidence, because such categories allow individuals to cope with conductional vigilance rationally. Trustworthiness can be “used” whenever an individual tries to predict an interactant’s future conduct with the help of “shared knowledge categories” about the interactant’s conductional coherence. This may be especially true for highly digitalized environments, in which individuals might find it difficult to rely on their relational confidence in other social actors but face a lack of alternatives on which to base their trust.

It can be further assumed that communities, organizations, or even larger societies will necessarily, and somewhat naturally, develop trustworthiness categories to enable interactions between their members based on their own ideas of what makes social actors “worthy” of their “trust.” They can further distribute these trustworthiness categories through mass communication, such as word-of-mouth, mass media content, or online reputation systems.

Contrary to trust, which must be considered an attribute of individuals (and how they perceive themselves to be part of dyadic relationships), trustworthiness categories should be regarded as an attribute of groups and communities (see Fig. 7.1). As an information category, trustworthiness can be of use only if it is comparative in nature and can be used for more than one person. Let’s take the idea of credibility as an example of a type of trustworthiness that individuals commonly refer to. If we refer to a specific person or source as credible, the idea of credibility must be of such common sense that we can compare this person’s credibility to that of a second actor. Otherwise, information that a person is credible would be completely useless.

If, for instance, a friend refers to our new colleague Anna as credible, we both have a sense of what the concept of credibility means to us and which other actors we would personally perceive as credible. In Anna, we have a shared reference point for our idea of credibility.

As this example illustrates, trustworthiness categories are of value only if there are at least three actors involved—two interactants and a reference point; this is different from trust, which requires only an individual’s perception of a dyad. In many ways, this is essential to understanding the main functionality of trustworthiness and its role in the development of languages. In some parts of the trust research, it is assumed that individuals recognize specific trustworthiness cues in their interactants, since trustworthiness is considered to be an almost personal attribute of that interactant (cf. Golbeck, Warren, & Winer, 2012; R. C. Mayer et al., 1995). However, if we follow the assumption that trustworthiness is part of a communal reference system, we should not frame it as ←169 | 170→the interactant’s attribute. Trustworthiness is only part of how we reference and pass information about other actors in order to be better equipped for social interactions that might feature conductional vigilance; the way individuals perceive or talk about the trustworthiness of others is not necessarily based on evidence and heavily relies on their shared knowledge. Let me use a simple thought experiment to illustrate this.

Imagine a lost island somewhere in the ocean. The island has only two inhabitants, who were born there and have had no contact with any other living person, as their parents passed away in their childhood. Unaware of the existence of other people, and without any proper sense of the rest of the world, they are the only human beings they know. We can easily imagine how they are capable of processing each other’s social presence and experiencing social interference with each other. Just from an evolutionary perspective, it seems likely that they would bond with each other. There would be no need to introduce something like a trustworthiness category; the concept itself would not make any sense to them. Each of them has only the other person as an interactant and reference point for their thoughts. They would not be able to share their ←170 | 171→estimation of the other person’s trustworthiness with anyone else, and there would be no need to name it in a specific way.

Now imagine that one day a boat is washed up on the island. In it is a woman, the only survivor of a passenger liner that has sunk in the ocean. After the two islanders have rescued the woman, the three of them live together. Slowly, the two islanders are trying to make sense of the behavior and motives of this woman, whose language they do not speak. While one islander is highly suspicious of the woman and experiences a type of negative interference, the other is more welcoming and less alarmed, as he experiences a type of positive interference. For both islanders, it is hard to predict the woman’s behavior.

To mutually discuss their impressions and what they can expect from that woman, the two islanders come up with specific categories. They enter a more rational conversation about whether they can rely on her and believe her, and whether she has good or bad intentions. They are doing this to predict her general behavior and conduct. Suddenly, the idea of trustworthiness has entered their conscience, as the two start using categories that refer to the woman’s general behavior and whether she is “worthy” of being trusted. They have introduced a reference system on which they both can rationally agree.

While this is a fairly simple thought experiment (one that largely ignores more primordial factors such as sexual attraction or rivalry), it emphasizes the rational value of trustworthiness and the major differences between it and trust. We must assume that, because of their biological set-up, individuals are naturally capable of trusting other individuals. If for instance, an orphan had grown up in the woods as a feral child, we could assume that its information processing could potentially experience social interference and retrieve relational confidence once it got in touch with another human being (or civilization) based on its experience of social interference. However, it would not be able to understand the concept of trustworthiness immediately without a proper, rationalized knowledge of civilization itself and its social and cultural norms, or language.

Considering all of this, it would be wrong to assume that trust was primarily driven by the processing of trustworthiness cues. Trustworthiness categories are somewhat artificial and “man-made” tools to assist us in social interactions and they are used rationally; they are largely dependent on what is considered consensus within a group, organization, or society. It makes more sense to understand them as the result of a social group’s (or network’s) collective memory or intelligence. Much as the two islanders agreed on mutual categories, larger groups or whole societies can develop their own trustworthiness categories and cues; especially in modern environments, information that ←171 | 172→refers to the trustworthiness of a social actor can be of special significance, as such information can effectively be exchanged through mass communication.

Because of this, we can assume that many social groups or networks gather and process information about what makes their members trustworthy as a natural result of their internal communication. Information about what makes an actor worthy of trust can be exchanged and “stored” as collective memory with the help of word-of-mouth or by mediated channels. In larger social groups, such as modern societies or even global environments, public mediators can play an essential role in the distribution and retrieval of trustworthiness cues, as individuals might not be able to comprehend the size of the group without further help.

Much as human consciousness can retrieve “stored” knowledge from its own memory, individuals can retrieve knowledge from collective memory and shared distribution in order to deal with the processing of conductional vigilance. In many ways, it makes sense to consider the emergence of trustworthiness a direct result of the expansion of social spaces in the course of modernity and their increasing reliance on mediated communication channels. Trustworthiness cues allow individuals to keep up with their expanding social multiverse and allow social groups as a whole to communicate and synchronize certain values of social interaction. Of course, this is not necessarily a good thing; one can easily think of authoritarian societies that are very vocal about communicating which of their citizens fall into the category of being trustworthy and which do not. However, the emergence of trustworthiness categories can also lead to improvements within social groups, since they might incentivize further interaction.

What seems most significant in the context of trust is how trustworthiness categories address our need to place the experience of social interference on a more rational basis. While social relationships are mostly perceived implicitly, trustworthiness categories allow individuals to communicate their sense of coherence more explicitly and share their experience (of social interference) with other individuals as part of their collective memory. Addressing someone’s loyalty, for instance, will articulate how this person can coherently show strong support or allegiance.

For trustworthiness cues to work as a way to reduce conductional vigilance in social interactions, our working memory needs to apply a specific (heuristic) principle, which can be articulated in the following sentence: If a social actor appears to be trustworthy based on the memory of others, one would have likely come to the same conclusion if he had interacted with this actor herself. If this sounds like a very plausible sentence to you, and if you have used this logic, for ←172 | 173→instance, in your last online purchase, chances are that you have internalized it as part of your social performance. However, most of us know from our experience that this sentence is not necessarily true and that such logic can get us into trouble as much as it can help us. There is no guarantee that the collective memory of an actor’s trustworthiness will lead to our expected results. It will not necessarily become true. Nevertheless, it allows us to apply trustworthiness cues to our rational evaluation and ultimately helps us to build rational expectations based on the collective reference system.

At this point, it is important to remember that the way trust provides us with relational confidence is not necessarily reliable either. As I have noted, individuals might have an implicit gut feeling about another actor, act accordingly to this feeling, and still be proven wrong in the end. Furthermore, research in the field of psychology has shown that collective memories can at times be more as well as less efficient than an individual’s memory—depending on the situation and information processing (cf. Weldon & Bellinger, 1997). While in some cases it can be more accurate to rely on the knowledge of others, in others it might be more efficient to rely on one’s individual memory.

7.6 Interdependencies between Trust and Trustworthiness

While the approach presented in this book proposes a clear distinction between trust and trustworthiness, many scholars have referred to them as closely related (cf. Hardin, 2004). Of course, our definition of what makes a social actor trustworthy cannot be completely separated from our experience of social interference. Future research should investigate whether new trustworthiness categories emerge only from the way individuals experience social interference on their own or they can be artificially created and mass distributed (e.g., through propaganda that is used to ostracize or discriminate against groups of people).

Nevertheless, it seems highly important to approach trustworthiness as a social and linguistic construct to better understand its specific relation to trust. More than anything, trustworthiness is the result of how a social group translates into its shared consciousness its ideas about what makes a social actor worthy of trust. In modern societies, such categories manifest themselves in news coverage and advertisements and in the way online user profiles or online reputational systems are designed, but they may also be recognizable in the realm of smaller interpersonal interactions. Considering the influential role of traditional mass media and social media on the distribution of trustworthiness categories, our idea of whether social actors are trustworthy (or not) ←173 | 174→highly depends on our information sources. In an age in which individuals are confronted with a multiplicity of public spheres (cf. Münker, 2009), we are capable of accessing a variety of collective memories through different social groups. Subsequently, we can internalize various types of trustworthiness categories as rational signifiers of social performance. In many ways, there may be a certain arbitrariness as to which trustworthiness categories exist within a social group and what types of actors are generally considered trustworthy. Within particular groups, for instance, certain occupations, ethnicities, or cultural backgrounds may be associated with higher levels of trustworthiness than others (cf. Erenler, 2016).

This is why from a structural perspective, the communication of trustworthiness categories may vary from group to group or society to society and highly depends on the use of communication media. Both trust and trustworthiness depend on rather complex and rather specific communicational principles—which is arguably something that the current trust literature has noticed but not explored to its full extent. Understanding the communicational aspects of trust and trustworthiness will get us one step closer to understanding their impact in highly digitized and digitalized environments. Trust as a mental algorithm can be considered part of how individuals experience other social actors as part of dyadic social relationships; it is a highly subjective precognitive process that differs from person to person based on the information input. Conversely, trustworthiness categories allow whole groups and communities to relate to each other with the help of shared knowledge categories that can be rationally processed in order to form expectations toward each other. It is a simple heuristic principle—the idea that we can trust such actors who are presented to us as trustworthy—that often holds both trust and trustworthiness together as part of our daily routines (cf. Schweer & Thies, 2005). The implicit retrieval of relational confidence and the explicit formation of expectations based on trustworthiness cues can be so intertwined in our everyday behavior that we often might not recognize the difference. Let me use a final example from the area of online communication to illustrate this.

Imagine that your computer has broken down and you do not have the money to buy an entirely new one. You decide to buy a used laptop at an online auctioning site. You instantly find a great offer: a user of the site, Tom, offers a brand-new laptop that has rarely been used and is sold for half the price. Naturally, you are a little bit vigilant because of the low price (the laptop might be stolen). On his profile picture, Tom looks a bit suspicious and not sympathetic at all. Eventually, you decide to visit his profile to check the ratings from other users as well as their full comments. To your surprise, Tom’s profile ←174 | 175→mostly features positive ratings and comments from other users, declaring that the previous transactions went well and the product was shipped very quickly. Some users even mention that Tom is a caring person who wants to make sure that the product arrives in perfect condition and the customer is happy with it. There is only one negative comment arguing that the product itself differed from what the user had expected. Since you know the product very well, you come to the conclusion that this is a fair deal and decide to purchase the laptop.

In many ways, your decision to buy that laptop was motivated by different types of information processing. Of course, it would be easy to say that you “trusted” Tom because of the positive reviews, but it is a bit more complicated than that. Beyond your suspicion of the too-good-to-be-true deal and the awareness of potential risk, it might have been Tom’s profile picture (apart from other information) that allowed you to experience some kind of social interference with him. However, as the type of interference was of a more negative nature, you decided to read what others had to say about him. In the user comments, you were able to get more insights into Tom as a person. Through the positive notions in the comments, you may have experienced some type of positive social interference with him (if you believed the comments). What seems more significant in this context, though, is that you were also confronted with specific trustworthiness cues in the comments section that allowed you to rationally predict Tom’s conduct as part of your potential interaction with him. This would be even more apparent if the comments section were replaced by a five-star rating system in which users could rate factors such as Tom’s reliability or the quality of his items.

Considering all of this, both our trust and the rational evaluation of trustworthiness categories were at work at the same time. Together, they led you to your final confident impression that you should interact with Tom and to the more rational expectation that there were only a few dangers in buying a computer from him.

The example illustrates that even a simple online purchase presents an opportunity for the human mind to switch between different types of actor-related information processing; the implicit retrieval of relational confidence and the more explicit evaluation of someone’s trustworthiness may complement or sometimes even contradict each other (see Fig. 7.2). While our trust allows us to reciprocate with another social actor with an ease of conduct, the rational evaluation of trustworthiness seems to require a higher cognitive workload.

It is because of these differences that it seems necessary to distinguish trust from trustworthiness. While the example was taken from a very specific context, it seems important to ask how trustworthiness-cues and our own production ←175 | 176→of relational confidence in other, broader areas of life are different from each other. Only if we can separate trust and trustworthiness as concepts will we be able to explore their specific impact on social perception and social behavior. This impact seems particularly relevant for individuals and social groups whose communication is highly affected by digital technologies and a high number of mediated communication channels. In digital social resonance spaces, our information processing is confronted with new challenges, since both our trust and trustworthiness increasingly rely on complex communication structures. As I have noted, this seems especially true for social ties that feature larger and more abstract interactants, such as government institutions and international corporations.

Taking all of this into account, it is not too surprising that now and then the concepts of trust and trustworthiness are brought back to the public consciousness and are met with a high level of attention. In many situations, individuals may question whether they can rely on their subjective perception and trust when dealing with mediated contents. Such insecurities are most noticeable ←176 | 177→whenever the communication structures that surround us experience a dynamic change in their basic set-up. This has been arguably the case with the introduction of the World Wide Web and online communication in general, as users are confronted with an ever-increasing variety of communication channels, public mediators, and social actors with which they could potentially engage. As a consequence, any public discussion about whom we can trust can be considered an aspect of how individuals try to make sense of their changing communication structures and how these changes ultimately affect their very implicit experience of social relationships. It also shows how the experience of social relationships and, more specifically, trust as an innate basic mental function, have become relevant foundations of interconnectivity and can even, as it is the case with dating applications, lead to demographic change when mediated by online communication (cf. Ortega & Hergovich, 2017).

It is therefore necessary to approach trust through a dynamic framework—especially if we want to investigate how it is affected by mass communication and the emergence of digital communication channels. If trust is an essential part of how individuals experience their social environment as a multiverse—of how they connect with each other as a part of a communicational relation—we must assume that it is much more than a simple state of mind. For that reason, special attention should be paid not only to the particular role of public mediators and their distribution of actor-related information but also to trustworthiness categories as substitutes for trust. Both may profoundly impact how human information processing provides individuals with the experience of social interference.

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63 Of course, such polarization is not something new in the context of media reception and may also occur as a reaction to a print newspaper article or television news (cf. Martin & Yurukoglu, 2015). However, it is more visible in the context of online communication, where users can publicly engage with each other and reciprocate more frequently—and directly.

64 This should not suggest that every human being can be easily manipulated into trusting other social actors through the distribution of information; it emphasizes only that the human brain is inherently capable of processing a coherent sense of shared identity simply by being exposed to actor-related information.

65 According to Krastev (2013), the idea of transparency should be treated with caution when dealing with the issue of trust, especially in the context of political communication. While we would not be able to produce relational confidence toward public actors without a degree of transparency, things become difficult if, for instance, recipients demand that public actors be fully transparent so that they can “trust” them. Especially in the area of politics, such a demand can be highly problematic and might put the private lives of politicians in public focus. But even apart from that, the increasing transparency of private social media users who do not consider themselves to be public actors might be problematic, considering the restraints it places on their privacy and anonymity (cf. Suarez, 2013; Zuboff, 2013).

66 Of course, our reliance on the testimony of our colleague may vary based on what we perceive as his credibility. For instance, he could have some sort of agenda with regard to Anna.

67 Of course, this requires a certain reliance on, or trust in, collective memory as an information source.