By Kusumanjalee Thilakarathna
Imagine a setting that is foreign to you; you are meeting new people or people that you barely know, all by yourself, and you are offered some food or a beverage. How will you respond? Will you accept it, and enjoy it? Or, will it make you sceptical and uncomfortable accepting food from strangers? When you are out at a bar, what makes you trust the bartender or the waiter to not slip anything into your drink? Or if you consider a broader setting, what makes you trust a politician that comes to your door, canvassing for votes, that you cast your vote for them? When you hire a person for a job, what makes you trust them to be capable of taking up the responsibilities of the job?
Trust – defining the term itself is as difficult as trusting a person. Trust can be described as a feeling of confidence you have in a person’s reliability, a belief that a person will act in a certain way, or it can even be a set of behaviours that enables a person to depend on them. Trust is a feeling of security, the ability to predict one’s actions, and it can also be explained as a mental attitude that an individual has toward another.
Types of trust
There are two main types of trust; the trust we have in the people we associate with, and the type of trust we have in institutions such as businesses, the government, or the legal system. At first, we might not trust an individual and be very careful around them, but over time we’ll learn to trust them more. We usually develop this type of trust gradually. At first, we might not trust an institution and be very careful around it, but over time we’ll learn to trust it more. It’s important to have institutional trust because it allows us to co-operate and function as a society.
But what makes us trust a person or an institution? Is it our intuition or are there any principles contributing to trust at first sight? It is sensible to believe that trust comes from reliable performance over time? But we’ve all experienced a sense of trust towards certain people immediately after we meet them. What is the psychology behind trust? And, looking at the media reports warning us about trusting people, the known and the unknown, is it fair to assume that we are facing a crisis of trust?
A general understanding in the world of psychology is that trust is believing that the person who is trusted will do what is expected; our perception of the person will be unharmed as they act. Psychoanalyst Erick Erickson (1902-1994) was one of the first to explain human nature in trust. He said that the development of basic trust is the first stage of psychosocial development occurring (or failing) during the first two years of life. During this stage, the infant either comes to view other people as trustworthy, or comes to develop a fundamental distrust of his or her environment, based on how people around respond to him or her. Their entire worldview is shaped according to this experience.
British Psychologist, John Bowlby (1907-1990) also held a similar view that infants develop the trust that their caregiver will respond to their needs. As per their views, experiencing higher levels of trust with those who are close to them, particularly early in life, can lay the groundwork for happier, better-functioning relationships in adulthood.
Moreover, evolutionary theorists have proposed that psychological mechanisms associated with the expression and detection of trust, evolved in humans due to the need to assess the intentions of others properly and accurately. They propose that trust develops primarily in response to social interaction experiences with others including people in one’s social networks, and exposure to media.
Researchers who study romantic relationships with the theory of personality based on early experiences with caregivers have demonstrated that people who are most able to trust a close partner have a secure personality style. They view themselves as worthy of love, and view their attachment figures as generally capable of being loving and responsive. Looking at these theories, one thing is clear: “Psychologists place a greater significance on one’s self and the ability to trust, than the qualities of the person who is being trusted.”
Factors that influence trust
Plenty of factors can influence whether or not someone trusts another person. However, dominance (having power over another person), being in a positive mood or being socially comfortable, and feeling like someone is competent, are recognised as some important factors in trusting another individual.
Research suggests that those who are more dominant are less likely to trust their partners. This might be because they’re more likely to put their interests first, and are less likely to trust anyone else. Another factor that has been shown to affect trust is how similar someone is to us. We tend to trust another person more if that person is similar to us. One last factor that affects trust is how attractive we find the other person to be. The more attractive we find them, the more trust we place in them.
In my experience, a big portion of the problems a client brings forward in a counselling setting are based on trust; either problems with the trust they place in a significant other, or the trust they place in themselves. In both events, the consequences are tough, sometimes leading to serious mental health issues. It can’t be denied that trust is a central part of all human relationships, including romantic partnerships, family life, business operations, politics, medical practices, or basically anything that involves dealing with another party.
Improving our trust isn’t always easy, but it is achievable. It is important to be aware of the different types of trust that exist. Spend more time around the people you want to trust, and try to mindfully recognise when they behave in a trustworthy or an untrustworthy way. Try to put yourselves in their shoes and see if you feel like they might have your best interests at heart. It can help to look for signals which indicate that they trust you, like if they express their emotions to you, or behave in a way indicating that they trust you.
It’s important to pay attention to how you feel, and let your emotions guide you. If you find yourself constantly anxious about whether or not someone can be trusted, it might be a sign that you don’t trust yourself very much. In this case, it can be helpful to work on building self-confidence and accepting yourself for who you are. This is an area that can be developed well with the help of a mental health professional.
Finally, the most important thing to remember is that to trust means to be human!
(The writer is a mental health professional and has, over the past 10 years, contributed to several Sri Lankan media publications in both English and Sinhala languages, focusing on topics related to psychology and counselling)