Trust and Trust Building | Beyond Intractability

Trust and Trust Building



Roy J. Lewicki

Edward C. Tomlinson

December 2003


Trust- Overview

“Trust is a peculiar resource; it is built rather than depleted by use.” — Unknown

The phenomenon of trust has been extensively explored by a variety of disciplines across the social sciences, including economics, social psychology, and political science. The breadth of this literature offers rich insight, and this is noted in the common elements that appear in the definition of trust.

For example, Rousseau and her colleagues offer the following definition: “Trust is a psychological state comprising the intention to accept vulnerability based upon positive expectations of the intentions or behavior of another.”[1] Similarly, Lewicki and his colleagues describe trust as “an individual’s belief in, and willingness to act on the basis of, the words, actions, and decisions of another.”[2]

Additional insights into trust building are offered by Beyond Intractability project participants.

The need for trust arises from our interdependence with others. We often depend on other people to help us obtain, or at least not to frustrate, the outcomes we value (and they on us). As our interests with others are intertwined, we also must recognize that there is an element of risk involved insofar as we often encounter situations in which we cannot compel the cooperation we seek. Therefore, trust can be very valuable in social interactions.

Trust has been identified as a key element of successful conflict resolution (including negotiation and mediation). This is not surprising insofar as trust is associated with enhanced cooperation, information sharing, and problem solving.

Origins and Development of Trust

Armed with a definition of trust and a description of the benefits it brings, we now turn to examine its origins and development. Theory on the origins of interpersonal trust has proceeded broadly along three fronts: (1) explaining differences in the individual propensity to trust, (2) understanding dimensions of trustworthy behavior, and (3) suggesting levels of trust development.

Individual propensity to trust

Personality theorists have developed one of the oldest theoretical perspectives on trust, and argued that some people are more likely to trust than others. Viewed as a fairly stable trait over time, trust is regarded as a generalized expectancy that other people can be relied on. This expectancy is a function of the degree to which trust has been honored in that individual’s history of prior social interactions, and may have its most pronounced effect in novel or ambiguous situations. While this expectancy shapes perceptions of the character of people in general, more recent work has identified the characteristics of trustees that allow for the formation of trust and its growth to higher levels.

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