Trust – Does it matter?

cooperation.jpgWhy do we trust people? What do people really mean when they talk about trust? We will try to answer the question to what extend trust can be a factor in human relations. The first article gives an overview about the concept of trust and its impacts on modern society. Part I – By Christian Miess

Within the context of the latest debate about trust and democracy, the Süddeutsche Zeitung argued that trust in democracy is fading in Germany. Within this context it seems worthy to ask a basic and important question that often misses out: what is trust? Introducing trust, as a concept in social sciences is not that easy. Therefore, this article is also meant to be a starting point for a discussion about the needs of modern democracy.

Introducing: trust

Trust is something we deal with every day. We shall trust politicians to do the right thing and we demand our friends to be trustworthy when talking about private matters. In daily life there are different definitions, which already seem to blur the concept of trust. Therefore, the question we have to raise is how social science theories have described the concept and for what purposes trust is important. Only this way we can be sure not to overstrain this concept.

First of all, trust is defined as a state between knowledge and nescience. In the original sense, it is bound to individuals and involves at least two persons. In general, social scientists believe that a form of basic trust is built up during infancy. In this case, it is more a kind of reliance on parents and other relatives, which defines trust. This kind of reliance is based upon emotional bonds and is normally perceived as a positive experience. These positive experiences grow over time, and therefore can be carried forward to adult life. As a result, we can presume a life-long learning process. Through this process trust becomes a vital part of human life.

Trust in modern society

Here comes the twist: in our daily life we also trust people who do not belong to our family or are not our friends. This is because human beings have to trust each other to some extent. Otherwise daily life would be impossible. For instance, you need to have trust that nobody shoots you, when you want to go out or else you would never leave the house. It is obvious that trust based on emotions does not suffice any longer. Because of the amount of people involved in our daily life, we have to rely on ‘stressable’ conditions established by society, instead. Here, a distinction between trust and confidence comes into play. In contrast to trust, which applies only to interactive situations between people, confidence is a more abstract phenomenon.

For example, we can speak of confidence when we talk about the functioning of the administrative machinery. Especially in our society, which is based on division of labor, confidence is bound to the work of specialists. By doing so, we coordinate our lives on the basis of what we think we can predict most of the time. Ask yourself: do you question the work of a policeman because you know him? The answer is no. You believe he or she is doing the right job because you know he or she represents a certain expertise in this respective field of work. Within this context we find the ultimate manifestation of the problem of trust: How can one trust that the behavior of people we barely know will likely to be what we expect? This is extremely important because of the occurring backlash concerning the correlation between trust and confidence. We will come back to this point in more detail in the next articles on trust. In any case, whether we talk about trust or confidence, the aim is the same: to come to a decision with a certain amount of information.

Means to reduce complexity

Since trust is a state between knowledge and nescience, it can also be described as a mean to reduce complexity of everyday life. Means of complexity reduction, other than trust, are e.g. money, power, and knowledge. All together, they are needed to achieve cooperation among people. If you trust someone, you expect outcomes. Within the framework of complexity reduction, trust is needed when the other means of complexity reduction do not produce the optimum outcome.

The theoretical demand by Niklas Luhmann is that trust should not be a substitute for other means but it should intertwine with the other means of complexity reduction and improve them. Nowadays it is obviously that not everything can be perfectly predicted and money and power do not solve every problem. Neither do money and power give incentives to cooperate all the time. Trust on the other hand, is a perfect tool to handle future events by reducing a certain kind of complexity: the complexity to start cooperation. Trust could therefore apply, where distrust blocks efficient problem solutions right from the beginning.

Does it matter?

The latest trends indicate the main reason for the decline of trust to be that most Germans think they live in an unjust country. We neither trust politicians to solve our problems, nor do we have confidence in the different parties. On the other hand we also find that certain institutions like the police or the Federal Constitutional Court enjoy great reputation. The conclusion within context of the current debate about trust and democracy can only be that talking about trust in indifferent ways makes the term irrelevant in every respect. In this regard it would be more likely to talk of confidence than of trust. Nevertheless, trust seems to be an important index for people to talk about their perception of life. Therefore, the question if trust matters, can still be answered with yes.

As we have seen so far, trust occurs in many ways: It can be a form of reliance on other people, a form interpersonal relation and last but not least, a form of complexity reduction in modern society. Because trust is related to everyday life, we will have to find terms that indicate the particular meaning. This especially affects the distinction between confidence and trust. Thus some additional questions do remain. Is it possible to apply this concept for all the theoretical demands connected? Is there a difference in cooperation between people based on trust? These questions will be dealt with in the subsequent articles on trust here on /

Read more about trust in the second and the third part of the series.

The pictures are public domain.


Luhmann, Niklas: Vertrauen: Ein Mechanismus zur Reduktion sozialer Komplexität, 4. Auflage, Stuttgart: Lucius und Lucius 2000 (not translated into English, yet)

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