Trust Research Paper Example

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Trust, the general sense of well-being in relation to one’s self and toward others, is an essential attribute of human character as well as of interpersonal interaction. The attainment of a sense of trust has long been thought by ego psychologists to be the first human developmental task and is based largely on the infant’s growing expectation that the mothering figure will become a constant source of nurturing and satisfaction in the individual’s life. Good nurturing thus disposes the individual to anticipate positive encounters with the environment and with other persons.

There is common agreement that trust is an essential factor in successful social environments and interactions. Persons need to feel secure in their expectations for good outcomes as they go about their daily lives. For instance, they need to assume that an elevator is functioning normally, that they will be understood linguistically if they cry for help, and that a medical professional will try to do them good rather than harm. So important is what could be called “background trust” that experimentally breaching it, as sociologist Harold Garfinkel has shown, by speaking nonsense when a person asks for directions or help, causes subjects to become extremely angry and anxious. If one has a flat tire, and the experimenter replies to a call for help by asking what a tire is, rage on the subject’s part is sure to follow. Hence there is strong reason to think that trust is an interaction imperative, up to and including dealing with one’s enemies, as the history of the cold war suggests.

The greater the degree of trust in social transactions, it is believed, the more optimal are the satisfactions for participants. Relations between members of households and kin networks, for instance, are typically characterized as high in trust, and it is notable how solutions to the most difficult problems of human dependency, such as infancy, old age, and disability, are undertaken at great sacrifice within their confines. Trustworthy expectations also flow through social networks such that they are an important source of economic opportunities such as job finding and job getting.

Trust and exchange, used here in the broadest sense, are intimately related. Exchange creates trust, and trust facilitates exchange. Among members of small-scale societies, gift giving creates the necessity of reciprocity and generates in the giver the expectation of being a receiver and thus a beneficiary of a gift in a future transaction. Bonds of mutual expectation are formed and can often support the exchange of purely economic goods, as the classic investigation of anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942) among the Trobriand Islanders of the Pacific a century ago showed.

The depth of trust among participants also affects exchanges in markets. At minimum, most economists recognize trust as a helpful externality: that is, trust is a noneconomic element that improves economic efficiency by increasing the speed of transaction and limiting the need for costly conditions to ensure mutual compliance. Its absence increases economic risk and may foster opportunism among buyers and sellers that limits the scope of market transactions. Lack of trust between producers and suppliers has been argued as a primary motivation for the growth of large, vertically integrated industrial firms. If firms cannot trust their suppliers to deliver quality goods in a timely and cost-effective fashion, they reason it is better to produce the goods internally or purchase the supplying firm outright.

On the other hand, trust, it has been argued, can be misplaced. Exclusive trust in kin or in personal and social networks often signifies lack of trust in other persons, networks, and institutions outside their purview. This diffidence toward others can create economic and political troubles. Politically, Robert D. Putnam has argued, for instance, that trust is an indispensable good for building a successful civil society and, by implication, a functioning democracy. In a world economy dominated by large corporations, the temporary advantages afforded by a high degree of internal trust found among families and kin groups that stimulate high levels of personal dedication, income pooling, and personal sacrifice can become overwhelmed by such problems as small firm size, stunted organizational growth, and lack of access to capital markets for expansion. If mistrust in the face of outsiders in markets leads to out-and-out hostility, deviant economic combinations, such as the mafia and what Max Weber (1864-1920) called “pariah capitalism,” can arise. A market where neither the expectation nor the reality of fair treatment, both reliant on background trust, is met tends to founder and shrink. Moreover, exploitation of others outside the bounds of exclusive trust becomes highly likely.

Exclusive bonds of trust need not be overtly hostile to be exploitative. Cartels and trusts, historic fetters on economic efficiency, are precisely the products of relations of trust developed among nominally competing firms. Through the reciprocal exchange of information, favors, and market opportunities, they effectively charge a tax on their transactions with other buyers and sellers outside their circle.

As world society and the world economy become more integrated, globalized in a word, the need for, as well as evidence of, a more generalized interpersonal trust have been noted. Mass travel and migration, unprecedented collective reliance on large bureaucratic organizations for all kinds of commodities and services, and the rise of communication and information technologies necessitate increased contact with impersonal, anonymous persons, providers, and interlocutors. The sense of well-being and the expectation of gratification embodied in the concept of trust take on even greater importance. There are many instances in which this sense of globalized background trust can be observed, from the casual use of the credit card to the ease with which one can trade, borrow, and travel in ever grander geographical and social spaces. Inside large organizations, the same expectations of good interactions are created through rewards and training, though employee trust can be lost easily through the abuses of hierarchy and corporate economic power.


  1. Arrow, Kenneth. 1974. The Limits of Organization. New York: Norton.
  2. Erikson, Erik. 1963. Childhood and Society. 2nd ed. New York: Norton.
  3. Fukuyama, Francis. 1995. Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity. New York: Free Press.
  4. Garfinkel, Harold. [1967] 1984. Studies in Ethnomethodology. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press.
  5. Giddens, Anthony. 1990. The Consequences of Modernity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  6. Granovetter, Mark. 1995. Getting a Job: A Study of Contacts and Careers. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  7. Malinowski, Bronislaw. [1922] 1984. Argonauts of the Western Pacific. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland.
  8. Putnam, Robert D., Robert Leonardi, and Raffaella Y. Nanetti. 1993. Making Democracy Work. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  9. Weber, Max. [1905] 2001. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Trans. Talcott Parsons. New York: Routledge.

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