“Mistrust the Trusts” read the caption of a November issue of The Economist.1 This truly captured the spirit of our times: Trust is vanishing all around us. We used to trust our bankers, our policemen, our intelligence services, our butchers, our generals and our economists — but no longer. We still believe that trust is crucial for the conduct and management of our lives, but our inability to shake off our skepticism about it is causing us to doubt and distrust widely, extending even to our own judgment.2
Trust is the assured reliance on the integrity, veracity and steadfastness of another party. Trust begins in infancy with the regular and repeated familiar encounters with parents and siblings. This, wrote Jonathan Sacks, “is the crucible of much that matters in later life, the growth of sympathy and trust and sociability.3
In adulthood, trust means to believe. Trust means you have no doubt about the honesty, credibility and integrity of “the other,” be that of your mother, father, tribe, nation, your partner or even God.
I know of no stronger statement of trust than that given by Job in the Old Testament: “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him.”4 Engraved on the “greenback” US dollar are the words: “In God We Trust.” Indeed, trust in all religions is associated with a trust in God.
The universal diminishment of trust consequently affects our religions, currencies, governments and even our rapidly developing technologies. Trust depends on communication and much of this now relies on the internet and mobile phones. While we now rely on these new means of communication not only do we mistrust them but we even recognize that they are lowering our ability to trust.
Looking into someone’s eyes is different from seeing their face on a screen. The impact on trust is significant. It is strong enough to make or break a deal. Hearing their tone of voice may be revealing, but observing the twitch of their lips may be much more significant in romance as well as in business. Alas, some preschool children, fixated on their appliances, are finding it hard to communicate directly with others because they are lacking the essential social skills!
The degree to which one party trusts another is a measure of belief in their fairness, honesty or even the empathy of the other. “Confidence,” rather than trust, may be a more appropriate word for a belief in the other party’s competence.
Consequently a failure in trust may be excused or forgiven more easily if it is interpreted as a failure of competence rather than deceit or hostility. Trust is a social construct and, as such, must remain open for discussion as to whether it can continue to operate effectively given the impact of the new technologies. Indeed, how can we really trust communications which are riddled with malware, spy networks, and hacking by various media experts?
We need trust because we increasingly find ourselves operating at a border between confidence in what we know from past experience and the challenge of new contingencies. Without trust, the whole spectrum of possibilities opens up and should be considered. Potentially this can lead us into a paralysis of inaction. To counter-balance this, choices or decisions are often made on impulse in which the possibility of an alternative course, such as cooperation, is barely considered. Thus trust acts positively as “a reductor” of social complexity in our lives.
It is widely accepted that social trust benefits the economy while low levels of trust inhibit economic growth. Trust is thus seen as a lubricant for the economy, cutting the cost of transactions between parties. Theoretic models have shown that the optimum level of trust that a rational businessman should exhibit in transactions should equal the trustworthiness of the other party. Were he trusted less, it might lead to lost opportunities, trusting too much could lead to possible exploitation and vulnerability.
Breaking the law, as in the case of fraud or theft, paradoxically can also lead to a twisting of trust. For example, J.P. Morgan, the bank which has had to pay fines of around $30 billion over the past three years for different “dubious” involvements, defied trust. It mis-sold mortgage bonds to pension funds, routinely bundled bad home loans in the United States into securities which were then sold as being of high quality to investors, and it failed to alert US authorities about Bernard Madoff’s giant Ponzi scheme despite deep suspicions about the loans made by the staff of JP Morgan. The astonishing reaction on the part of the shareholders was, in part, that they have come to trust J.P. Morgan’s ability to overcome any and all problems and produce a good profit at the end!
In the UK the public has overwhelmingly lost its trust in banks and bankers. More than £130 billion of British taxpayer money was spent bailing out the banks ever since the credit crunch in 2008. Trust in Barclays, for example, has fallen spectacularly as it was at the center of the Libor (London inter-bank lending rate) scandal. Libor is considered to be one of the most crucial interest rates in finance, underpinning trillions of dollars and pounds worth of loans and financial contracts. The failure of the five major banks to play by the rules may ultimately result in dividing them into smaller units in an effort to rebuild national trust.
In politics, as in banking, trust remains a complex and slippery notion. For the great English philosopher, John Locke, the wider sense of trust was central to consensual government. Locke believed that the government was the servant of society, bound by the provisions for which it had been constituted by the people. When a breach of this trust occurs and those in power “act contrary to their trust,” power quite simply “devolves to the people.” Thus trust was seen by him as a way to limit arbitrary power.
Much influenced by Locke, Thomas Jefferson wrote that “When a man assumes a position of trust, he should consider himself as public property.”5 Few politicians who have assumed a position of trust have lived up to Jefferson’s standard. The most disgraced President in American history, Richard Nixon, who did not inspire trust in others and could barely trust himself, wrote that in politics “If people trust a man, it does not matter much what he does or says.”6 It seems that all too many politicians in the 21st Century fail to inspire trust and the electorate seem to shrug its collective shoulders.
So what can be done to restore trust in our times? Trust could be rebuilt through honesty and meaningful communication. However, this has become an ever greater challenge in an era of declining print readership and increases in global mini-communications such as tweeting. There is widespread acceptance that to gain someone’s trust, you must trust her (or him). This rarely happens on the internet except perhaps erotically on dating sites. It seem almost impossible to conceive of this occurring in terms of politics.
Dr. Robert Huizenga, a Beverley-Hills internist and TV star, has offered some useful steps to build trust in our relationships. He suggested: “Be predictable” and notify others when you become “unpredictable.” Growth and change are always accompanied by a smattering of chaos. Welcome such shifts for they are part of an effort to search “for something better/different/ richer/deeper.” Also make certain your words match the message. “Mean what you say and say what you mean. Trust is awareness of the intent beneath the obvious message.” And believe the other party is competent “and has the internal strength and capacity to handle anything. Such trust builds trust.”
Huizenga was presenting steps for personal relationships, but these apply to politicians, business leaders, and the rest of us as well. Restoring trust often is a long process. It is also unlikely to become any easier for future generations. But start with yourself. We can begin by making progress there. Finding others you can trust is likely to be more challenging, but ultimately this may prove well worth all your efforts. Trust will remain essential to our psychological well-being, whatever the technological advances, and for as long as we continue to be truly human.
1November 19, 2013
2 It is truly frightening to consider the staggering amount of information about us which is being stored in various facilities: Our National Health Service records (UK), health insurance services, Social Security, pensions, driving license, passports, bank details, credit and debit cards, telephone services, TV license, voter registration records, as well as all the material collected on the internet by the likes of Microsoft, Google, Skype, Yahoo, Safari, Firefox, Facebook, and Twitter.
3 Jonathan Sacks, “The Politics of Hope,” (1997) p. 191
4 The Book of Job XIII.15
5 Thomas Jefferson in a letter to Baron von Humboldt (1807)
6 Life Magazine, May 28, 1956