“Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.”

— William Shakespeare

“Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships.”

— Stephen Covey

“Trust, but verify.”

— Ronald Reagan

“Few things can help an individual more than to place responsibility on him, and to let him know that you trust him.”

— Booker T. Washington

“You must trust and believe in people or life becomes impossible.”

— Anton Chekhov

“Trust dies but mistrust blossoms.”

— Sophocles

“I repeat… that all power is a trust; that we are accountable for its exercise; that from the people and for the people all springs, and all must exist.”

— Benjamin Disraeli

“Men are able to trust one another, knowing the exact degree of dishonesty they are entitled to expect.”

— Stephen Leacock

“Trust your instinct to the end, though you can render no reason.”

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

“One of the common failings among honorable people is a failure to appreciate how thoroughly dishonorable some other people can be, and how dangerous it is to trust them.”

— Thomas Sowell

Trust is the foundation and lubricant of human interactions. Absent trust, vital interactions become difficult, easily interrupted, and tentative. It is hard to imagine a world in which trust is increasingly absent or weakened, but this is where we seem to be headed. Inevitably? Or is there anything we can do about such a troubling trend?

I have never given trust much thought. It is kind of a gut-feeling thing with me, and perhaps you as well. I trust until I encounter some reasonably strong reason not to trust. But what exactly is this thing we call “trust”?

Trust is the belief and confidence in the integrity, reliability and fairness of a person or organization…. an essential human value that quantifies and defines our interdependence in relationships with others.

No idea where I ran across this definition, but it seems quite good to my mind. Trust is a confident belief we have, primarily about people and organizations, but also about many other things with which we interact. Interaction seems to be the key concept here.

Interactions build or weaken trust

We don’t need to trust something that we don’t interact with in some manner or other. Actions by one party cause reactions by the other party, thinking as simply as possible. “Good” early responses reinforce initial trust; “bad” responses can weaken or even destroy any initial trust. Both “good” and “bad” are generally subjective assessments.

Most people seem to intuitively trust or mistrust in almost every interaction. At least, this intuition provides a starting point until repeated interactions build up an experience base for trust or mistrust. We are more inclined to trust, perhaps due to our tribal human nature, until repeated negative experiences teaches us otherwise.

Way back in the old days when dirt was new, human interactions were extremely limited. You interacted with members of your tribe, and probably with other tribes in a conflict context. Bad outcomes to many such interactions involved becoming dead or seriously injured. Trust was a survival mechanism between tribes and even within tribes.

Trust is part of what seems to be our built-in human nature. We trust or distrust instinctively. Analysis is rarely involved at a primary level. Gut-feeling type of responses and their assessment are what worked. At least, sort of and for a while.

Today we are deluged and overwhelmed by interactions

Our evolutionary form of trust is under assault from every direction and from an enormous variety of sources and mechanisms. Some folks, so I read, even interact with their smart phones. Who trusts a smart phone much these days?

This means that our instinctive machinery for dealing with interactions and trust issues is almost entirely inadequate, if not fully broken. We still have to manage interactions with some degree of instinct since there are far too many these days to deal with more than a very few individually and analytically. So many of our interactions are on autopilot, yes?

Autopilot responses and even quickly-focused responses naturally lead to most people making many mistakes on typically complex issues of trust. Some folks of course lean very heavily toward trust in all but the nastiest interactions. Others opt primarily for mistrust responses, which can cause many unnecessary relationship problems and worse, as you might expect.

Perhaps our best hope today is that we are probably building a new and better instinctive overlay to handle our volumes and variety of unavoidable interactions. A few folks seem just to tune out anything but the most urgent and severe interaction demands. Pretty tough to do in general, however.

Interactions without trust by all parties involved are difficult or worse.
Interactions without trust by all parties involved are difficult or worse.

Constructive human interactions require trust

In virtually any human interaction, trust is involved since we rarely can be 100% sure of what the other party’s response might be. We interact on the basis of whatever trust we have that the outcome will be positive or at least constructive. We offer trust from our side in the hope, and possibly valid expectation, that the other party will respond in a good way.

If our interaction experience proves largely negative, subjectively at least, we mostly stop interacting with the offending party. Assuming of course that we have a choice in the matter. Otherwise, we interact minimally and joylessly. Is there truly an issue of trust in such obligatory joyless interactions? I mean apart from the general expectation or “trust” that some degree of pain or hassle will be involved no matter what. This doesn’t seem much like “trust” as I understand it. The nature of such interactions seems more along the lines of compliance and obedience. Or maybe just winning.

Trust in the government

The “government” here includes politicians, rulers, ruler-wannabes, and various related powers-that-be. Despite many and varied interactions with this bunch on a long term basis, I can’t seem to connect anything about “trust” with these. The interactions are almost entirely along the lines of compliance and obedience. Not much voluntary involved.

For this reason, in my case at least, trust and government are oxymorons. No pun intended. Such interactions are mostly a matter of expectations. Trust involves something of mutual benefit, which does not typically characterize anything to do with government. They expect (order, coerce) me to do certain things, and I expect them to make these demands. I pretty much do what I’m told, what I must do, as they require.

Where trust may actually be relevant is a government party telling us something that we need to know. Like election-related somethings. Like legislation-related somethings. Like various promises to do stuff that’s important to us.

Do I trust what they say? Based on way too many years of experience with such interactions, I am skeptical at best and cautiously untrusting otherwise. It took a while to learn, but I finally did.

Trusting the media

Umm … this seems even worse than government kinds of interactions. We have such a huge and vital need to get reliable information on so many matters, but the media in general – regardless of its persuasions – has to be almost completely suspect. At best.

On the other hand, why is trust involved here at all? The media is a collection of businesses, each with different agendas and interests. Funding sources determine much of these. No surprise in this. I would not expect anything different from them.

The problem, if there is one, comes from individuals deciding for various reasons to rely on media outputs. Such reliance is a kind of trust, but it really isn’t since the interaction is one-way in most cases. The media does not promise to provide any sort of reliable information in return for your trust. The media mostly does what it likes and what its funding sources pay for.

Should someone trust any of the media, then that individual probably has personal reasons and needs for doing so. Nothing two-way generally involved, and perhaps not even expected. People tend to believe what they want and to seek out sources that support their beliefs.

Posterchild for media trust or mistrust issues?

Trust is typically reserved for important, high-stakes interactions

Think about interactions in which trust is a truly vital ingredient. Something major is involved and you need the other party to act or respond reliably for mutual benefit. You can’t tell ahead whether they will do so. You have to act in “good faith” that they will. If they do not, the interaction could turn out very badly for you. Big stakes kinds of bad.

Without big stakes being involved, the outcome may well be disappointing, but it will not be fatal in some respects. At worst, you will have tested the relationship under trust and found it wanting. This may in turn guide you away from any future interactions – even those where stakes are small.

Trust does not have to be mutual in many kinds of interactions. It will mostly be essential to the party acting first. I trust you so I’ll do something on the basis of that trust. You may well not even be aware or care that you have such a trusting party involved.

Suppose that I trust certain news organizations to give me a reasonably complete and truthful story on various subjects of great importance to me. The news organization does not even know that I exist, and probably would not or could not care less if it did. My trust is one-sided for reasons of my own. I am gambling that a particular news source will give me what I need, and I am willing to gamble on the interaction’s outcome for me based on my trust. Bad outcome is a learning experience as they say. A good outcome also, in general.

Trust is vital in so many of our interactions these days

Huge changes, major disruptions, great uncertainties. Much of our lives today seems chaotic, as a recent post described. Unlike in the very old days, when we could rely on – or trust – tribal leaders and councils for guidance. These were our people and we trusted them almost completely.

It has been a while since those old days, but the inborn willingness and need to trust someone or some entities remains. It is part of our human nature. We are by nature rather trusting critters. While this may have worked out well enough in past, it is often very risky and unwise in our world today. Why?

Thanks to insightful and aggressive manipulators of information such as Edward Bernays, father of public relations and master propagandist of the 1920s, our willingness to trust has been widely and frequently exploited. These are two-way trust-based interactions, but they trust – intend – that whatever they promote will be accepted without serious questions, while we recipients are encouraged to trust them. They take full advantage of our generally trusting nature.

Exploitation and destruction of trust

This effort is of course nothing new. It has been going on for as long as there were trusting people to exploit and manipulate. Approximately forever, in other words. So what’s new about it today?

Powerful information and communication technologies.

Never before in history have we had such tools for use in our interactions. Mass interactions are now simple and often costless. Much of this is beneficial and welcome. But human nature ensures that some few will use this amazing new technology for their own power-seeking purposes.

Media overload causes interactions overload, which in turn can overwhelm trust mechanisms.
Media overload causes interactions overload, which in turn can overwhelm trust mechanisms.

Rulers, ruler-wannabes, and their many supporters can now achieve domination even across our global billions of people. And seem to be doing so, at least in certain places and in some respects. They still have some way to go to get the job done, but they are making impressive headway.

Evidence of their success appears in growing numbers of believers and go-alongs. Although this has been termed “mass formation psychosis/hypnosis” by psychologists like Mattias Desmet, behavior of crowds persuaded by leaders has been a feature of human activities approximately forever. See here, here, and here for more on this currently-popular topic. 

One characteristic of believers and go-alongs is that they trust their leaders for the most part, and often unquestioningly, in their interactions. The opportunity to exploit this strong trust is far too attractive for many leaders to resist. Such trust is inexplicable to those outside of the believers and go-alongs core, but it clearly exists and is being exploited aggressively and ruthlessly. As always.

But today there is an important difference – the very powerful communications and information technologies that did not exist until recent times.

These technologies not only assist the exploiters and manipulators of trust, but also lay the seeds of their failure through destruction of trust. Fortunately, this process works in both directions. People can now see their trust being betrayed and misused much more easily today than ever before.

Destruction of trust in so many areas is underway today. This is very good news, especially for us non-believers and non-go-alongs. The trick as always is to be among the survivors of this process of trust destruction and possible re-creation.

Destruction of trust is necessary

There is a theory that destruction is a necessary precursor to re-creation. Trust being destroyed is setting the stage for creation of a new, and hopefully more durable, trust. Before the old regime can be flushed, the foundations of a new trust regime must be created. In theory at least.

Destruction as a necessary precursor to creation seems to be a law of nature. The downside here is that we have to experience and survive the destruction part. Some folks will almost certainly survive, but it seems to be of some importance that we are among those survivors. This is where it gets tricky.

We live today in a world where trust in whoever is leading things is being seriously hacked. Our natural trust instinct is under major attack. How might we fight this?

The answer, unfortunately, seems to be that we can’t, and probably shouldn’t.

Trust must be destroyed so that its replacement can be created? So what does this mean in the real world? We really can’t function in the world without some degree of trust. Human interactions, assuming that they continue despite the efforts of some folks to eliminate them, seem likely to continue so long as humans continue to exist. Trust remains part of us.

Learning is how trust is created or destroyed

Humanity seems to have signed up for learning the hard way. We will learn eventually but not easily. This of course is the history of humanity. We will learn the hard way just like our predecessors. The good news is that we will inevitably learn. The bad news is that the lesson will be mostly of the hard-way flavor.

Trust may be given before there is any experience with another party’s response since this is often the only way to find out trustworthiness. Trust on faith, or even hope, that the party involved in the interaction will respond in kind. Based on an initial interaction, some basis for trust is established – learned. This lesson may be good or bad, but it provides an experiential starting point for future interactions, if any.

Our new normal – meetings with little or no effective basis on trust?
Our new normal – meetings with little or no effective basis on trust?

Quite often, the interaction itself may be mandatory. It may well be repeating, whether one likes it or not. A series of negative outcomes will not build trust but instead mistrust. One learns to expect a negative outcome, so that the interaction process becomes more a matter of seeking ways to minimize bad outcome impacts. After a while, trust is no longer relevant or available.

Negative outcomes from interactions can destroy an initial basis for trust. It often takes a fair number of negative outcomes to destroy a strongly-held trust. We do learn, even if quite slowly because we may have some sort of beliefs involved. Allowing trust to be destroyed may damage or destroy these deeply-held beliefs. Trust in some form then remains, supported not by positive experiences but by the underlying beliefs. It is not really trust in mutually beneficial interactions any longer. Trust has been effectively destroyed and subsequent interactions become based largely or entirely on personal needs and beliefs.

Trust being betrayed and destroyed seems all too common today

In our complex fast-moving world, we interact on the basis of trust – or more likely, just hoping for the best – very often. There may well be no choice in the matter, with the interactions being unavoidable and outcomes unpredictable at best. At some point with most of us, repeated betrayals of our trust end up destroying the trust. Trust thus destroyed is extremely hard and often impossible to regain.

Future interactions then inexorably become a matter of distrust, often active distrust, on our part. These interactions are better characterized as conflicts.

Trust is being replaced by conflict

How can you interact with someone or some organization if there is no reliable basis for mutual trust? If former trust has been destroyed or greatly weakened but the interaction still must continue, what can you do?

The answer here seems to be that interactions tend to become largely based on distrust and its consequent conflict. So many interactions today are mostly or completely involuntary. No choice in the matter. The only wiggle-room we might have is in our handling of the interactions where distrust and conflict are fully in play. Often on both sides.

Such situations can occur in our workplaces where distrust may be endemic, interactions are mostly involuntary, and conflict is routine. These interactions may be extremely stressful and damaging to both participants and their organization. Nothing really new here – probably occurring pretty much since people and work groups were invented.

As you might expect, the COVID lockdowns and remote work among other drivers have greatly increased the incidence of distrust-conflict interactions. This is so serious that many organizations and work groups appear to be in the process of functional destruction.

Workplace distrust-conflict, although normal, is intensifying

Elizabeth Doty writing in PWC’s Strategy+Business looked at the distrust-conflict situation in an organizational context: “Five Ways to Reverse the Downward Spiral of Distrust

“A few years back, a VP at a high-tech firm I was working with pulled me aside. ‘Our division is mired in distrust,’ she said. ‘Teams are not talking to each other. Meetings are more about posturing than work. And no one is taking any real risks. But when I bring it up, I get shot down. Does the CEO not see it? Or has he given up on us?’”

“This story echoes many others I’ve heard from professionals in a variety of industries. In the day-to-day rush of business, leaders are often stymied when confronted with such breakdowns in collaboration and teamwork. They see the damage that distrust can do, but they also believe that rebuilding will cost them more political capital than they can afford. At its core, distrust means we have little hope that the other party will ever change. Why make the effort?”

“Unfortunately, once a company or team is infected with distrust, it tends to fall into downward spiral that drags everyone down to the lowest common denominator.”

“It starts with latent tensions: the normal frictions that arise from daily pressures and differing perspectives. A promise is broken, an expectation is violated, a value is not lived. All too often, we interpret even inadvertent breakdowns as intentional, which creates doubt about others’ integrity or commitment.”

“At the overt conflict stage, differences become more explicit. If these are handled constructively, teams get stronger and performance improves. However, if differences are mishandled, conflicts become personal and resentments arise. Listening is replaced by kneejerk reactions, as people focus on their own needs or on being right.”

“Left unaddressed, this type of conflict leads to withdrawal. Team members give up on change and start to pull back, often in subtle ways. They feel a little less committed and hold back on the extra contributions that help the team deliver. As people retreat into their corners, stereotypes, miscommunication, and assumptions abound.”

Trust and distrust are not opposites

Edward C. Tomlinson and Roy J. Lewicki in Beyond Intractability had an interesting point that trust and distrust are not opposites but are operationally different: “Managing Interpersonal Trust and Distrust”:

 “To illustrate the dynamics involved in these processes, we make use of recent research that has drawn the distinction between trust and distrust. Contrary to the traditional notion of trust as a unidimensional construct (i.e., that trust and distrust are bipolar opposites), recent work has asserted that trust and distrust exist along separate dimensions. Whereas trust is seen as the trustor’s confident positive expectations regarding the trustee’s conduct, distrust is defined as the trustor’s confident negative expectations regarding the trustee’s conduct. While both trust and distrust involve movements toward certainty of another’s conduct, the nature of that certainty and the emotional and behavioral reactions that come with it will differ considerably. That is, trust evokes a feeling of hope and a demonstrated willingness to become vulnerable to the trustee. Distrust, on the other hand, evokes fear and actions to buffer oneself from the harmful conduct of the other party.”

When trust is effectively destroyed, it is replaced by distrust and conflict

This of course is an overgeneralization. People will continue to conduct trust-based interactions as they have done forever. The difference today is that so many of our interactions today are handled remotely and electronically rather than face-to-face. Trust signals such as body-language that are available in-person are often completely missing in remote interactions.

Fewer trust-building opportunities and actions means that more of our interactions in future will be mini-trust, trustless, or distrustful. This means especially that more will be handled under conflict conditions.

Can this bleak outlook be turned around? My sense is that it cannot – absent some major happening that upsets, destroys, and resets just about everything. WWIII might do the trick but there may not be too many folks left around with whom to interact. One world government seems to be a more likely prospect, but it has its own mechanics for interacting and dealing with conflicts: Zero trust required. Just do what you are told.

Bottom line:

Trust seems to be giving way to widespread and diverse distrust and associated conflicts. This is due in part to our extraordinarily complex and interconnected world, and in part to technologies that have greatly increased our volume of interactions. While such a situation is likely to persist no matter what we do, our challenge is to adapt in ways that recognize this reality and address it in a practical manner. Fortunately, conflict resolution (or at least de-escalation) techniques of many kinds are available, but they are neither widely known nor applied. Interactions with little or no trust and routine conflict seems to be how much of our world works right now.

Related Reading

Three examples of how trust is being destroyed today:

“Though the Fed had been planning some form of a CBDC over the last several years, the privately held banking consortium announced Wednesday it would release its digital currency in July in response to the ongoing banking crisis and numerous nations pulling away from the U.S. Dollar.”

“From CNBC: ‘With the launch drawing near, we urge financial institutions and their industry partners to move full steam ahead with preparations to join the FedNow Service,’ said Ken Montgomery, the program executive and first vice president at the Boston Fed, which helped spearhead the project under former Boston Fed President Eric Rosengren.”

“Institutions that participate in the program will have seven-day, 24-hour access, as opposed to a system currently in place that closes on weekends.”

“CNBC then touted the utility of the Fed’s CBDCs, claiming it will be much easier in the future to infuse newly-printed dollars into the bank accounts of Americans similar to how they received helicopter money during the COVID pandemic.”

“’Program advocates say it will get money out to people much more quickly. For instance, they said, government payments like those issued in the early days of the Covid pandemic would have been credited to accounts immediately rather than the days it took to reach most people,’ CNBC reported.”

CBDCs are intended for surveillance and control purposes, not convenience as we are being told.
CBDCs are intended for surveillance and control purposes, not convenience as we are being told.

“Johnson & Johnson offered almost $9 billion – more than four times what it previously offered – to settle lawsuits alleging its talc-based baby powder causes cancer.”

“The $8.9 billion settlement proposed by the Big Pharma firm was aimed at around 100,000 claimants seeking damages. As of writing, 60,000 claimants have accepted the offer. Alongside this, J&J did not admit any wrongdoing on its part and insisted that its talc-based baby powder is safe to use.”

“According to several claimants, they have suffered from either ovarian cancer or mesothelioma – a cancerous tumor that can form on the outside of a person’s lungs, heart and other organs – as a result of using the product. Mesothelioma is often associated with the carcinogenic asbestos, which is incidentally found in the same mines where talc for baby powder is obtained. According to studies, inhaling or exposing skin to asbestos can cause a variety of issues for a person.”

J&J, a long-trusted name in products for babies, seems to have ignored a huge danger in its baby powder.
J&J, a long-trusted name in products for babies, seems to have ignored a huge danger in its baby powder.

“New details are coming out on the environmental and human health disaster that took place in East Palestine, Ohio, in February 2023. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) deployed seven Epidemic Intelligence Service members to East Palestine, Ohio in the aftermath of a ‘controlled burn’ of vinyl chloride from five derailed tanker cars. The agency did not initially report on the health status of these individuals, even though their health status provides important evidence and insight into the toxicity of the disaster. While failing to initially report the truth, the CDC did recently admit that all seven investigators fell ill while conducting surveys in East Palestine, Ohio. There’s no doubt that the East Palestine community was acutely poisoned during the ‘controlled burn.’”

“After refusing to properly secure and transport 1.1 million pounds of vinyl chloride to an incinerator site, the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency purposely allowed Norfolk Southern Railroad to drill holes in their derailed tanker cars and burn toxic vinyl chloride in pits. The government of Ohio approved a ‘controlled burn’ on site, with no concern for the acute and long-term toxic exposures to the residents of East Palestine and the surrounding communities.”

“The ‘controlled burn’ of vinyl chloride released untold levels of carcinogens into the community and the surrounding environment. The burn left a toxic plume of black smoke that contained an unknown level of dioxins, one of the most toxic substances known to man. The derailment also unleashed untold amounts of ethyl acrylate and isobutylene, two other well-known carcinogens.”

Controlled burn by CDC of toxic chemicals in East Palestine OH following train derailment.
Controlled burn by CDC of toxic chemicals in East Palestine OH following train derailment.