A Matter of Trust

Examining trust over lifespans

To Trust or Not To Trust

That is the Question

By Ken J. Rotenberg1, Lucy R. Betts2, and Pamela Qualter3

Trusting is the central issue confronting men and women in contemporary society. Close to the heart of the Shakespeare’s well-known phrase in Hamlet (To be or not to be), the act of being in the social world depends on a person’s decisions to trust or not to trust others almost every moment of every single day. Trust is immensely wide-ranging and spans from trusting the plumber to correctly fix a tap as promised.....to trusting one’s spouse to fulfil his or her promise of fidelity.

Our approach to trust is guided by the Basis, Domain, and Dimension (BDT) framework (Rotenberg, 2012; Rotenberg et. al., 2010). According to the BDT, trust is composed of three bases: (1) reliability or promise fulfilment, (2) emotional trust involving refraining from causing emotional harm (including secret keeping) and (3) honesty, which requires telling the truth and engaging in acts guided by benign rather than malicious intention. The three domains of trust are (a) cognitive and affective regarding the three bases of trusting (e.g., thinking and feeling that a person will keep a promise), (b) behavior-dependent trust, involving depending on others to engage in the three bases of trust (e.g., depending on another to keep a promise), and (c) behaviour-enactment trust (commonly called trustworthiness) that involves engaging in the three bases of trust (e.g., keeping a secret). The bases and domains are qualified by two interrelated dimensions of the target of trust. The two dimensions involve specificity ranging from a very specific person (e.g., your friend Mary) to a very general group of persons (e.g., the United Nations) and familiarity that ranges from a very familiar person to a relatively unfamiliar person or persons. Finally, trust involves reciprocity, especially in dyadic interactions, in which individuals match each others’ trust beliefs and behavior. As a result of those matches individuals establish a relationship that represents a common social history.

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Why is trust important as represented in the BDT framework ? This is demonstrated by the Einstein-type thought experiment which I (Ken J. Rotenberg) have had audiences engage in when I give talks on the topic. You might wish to take part in this thought experiment. Imagine the following: you cannot trust your friends to keep your personal information confidential, you cannot trust your partner to honesty manage your joint bank account, you cannot trust your work colleagues to maintain confidentiality of your joint work reports (out of reach of unwanted others), you cannot trust your line manager to honesty convey your performance to higher ups, you cannot trust your bank to keep your banking details confidential, you cannot trust politicians to fulfil their promises to maintain national (and your own) safety. Keep these in your “minds eye” and you will see that holding low trust will literally transfix you – you cannot actively engage with virtually anyone in your social environment: your friend, your romantic partner, your work colleagues, your line manager, your bank, and your politicians. Because of your low trusting beliefs you could not depend on them to keep promises, keep secrets, and act honesty. You would withdraw from social relationships. Furthermore, you would tend to reciprocate those behaviors in the form of not being inclined to keep promises you made to others, secrets you were told by others, and not acting in an honest fashion towards them.

Finally, imagine that whole nations of people (i.e., the United States) held such low trust beliefs – the result would be equivalent to a power meltdown across the country. This would cause a gridlock evidenced by no -- or at worst a negative form of -- social interaction. For these reasons contemporary psychologists believe that trust is essential to the functioning of individuals and to the survival of societies around the world. In order to counteract the potential effect of the loss of trust, please try to think about being very trusting now.

Does the BDT framework account for daily social interaction? Aside from that broader view of the framework and trust, precisely how does the BDT framework account for the social functioning of men and women (boys and girls) in their daily lives? Consider that you meet a person at work and he or she promises to meet you at a given restaurant for lunch on a given date and time. Both of you agree. You go to the restaurant accordingly and he or she shows up on time. Both of you have an enjoyable meal and you suggested that both of you should see a movie together at a given date/time– which is agreed upon – and you promise to go. The movie was exceptional (a five star!) and likely similar sequences become repeated during the course of your working years together. According to the BDT framework, these sequences pertain to the reliability basis of trust. The cognitive/affective domain comprises your expectations and accompanying feelings that the other person will keep promises. The behaviour-dependent domain is your act of depending on the other person to full his or her promises (i.e., showing up at the restaurant). Behavior –enactment trust is you keeping your promises which -- in this particular situation –happens to be the latter behavior. Of course, these equally apply to the other person’s orientation to you. Because trust has a pervasive reciprocal quality—particularly in dyads -- these interactions result in a common social history which represents in the case a trusting relationship.

The same processes apply for the emotional basis of trust. The sharing of personal information activity, for example, involves: (a) a cognitive/affective domain such as the belief that a person will keep the information confidential, (b) behavior-dependent domain such as disclosing personal information to another and (c) behavior-enactment domain such as personally maintaining confidentiality of that disclosure. The same applies for the honesty basis of trust. The communication of interpersonal information activity, for example, involves: (a) a cognitive/affective domain such a believing that a person’s communication is honest and guided by genuine/benign motivations, (b) a behavior-dependent domain such as depending on that communication to be accurate, and (c) behavior-enactment domain such as personally engaging in communication that is honest and guided by genuine/benign motivations. These bases are similarly subject to reciprocity and thus contribute to the development of relationships over time. Guided by the BDT framework, it is apparent that trust is indeed the social glue that establishes and maintains social relationships in the daily lives of men and women.

Affiliations and Acknowledgment

1 Professor Ken J. Rotenberg, School of Psychology, Keele University, Keele, Newcastle -Under-Lyme, Staffordshire, UK, ST5 5BH, e-mail: k.j.rotenberg@keele.ac.uk

2. Dr. Lucy Betts, Senior Lecturer, Division of Psychology, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK, NG1 4BU, e-mail: lucy.betts@ntu.ac.uk

3 Dr. Pamela Qualter, Reader in Developmental Psychology, School of Psychology, University of Central Lancashire, Preston, UK, PR1 2HE, email: PQualter@uclan.ac.uk

The authors extend their thanks to Professor Jim Hartley (Keele University) for his assistance in writing this blog.


Rotenberg, K. J. (Ed.) (2012). Interpersonal trust during childhood and adolescence. New York: Cambridge University Press (soft cover). (Link by clicking here)

Rotenberg, K. J., Addis, N., Betts, L. R., Fox, C.,Hobson, Z., Rennison, S., Trueman, M. & Boulton, M. J. (2010). The relation between trust beliefs and loneliness during early childhood, middle childhood and adulthood. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36, 1086-1100. (Link by clicking here)


Ken Rotenberg, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Keele University in the UK. He researches trust, loneliness, and other areas.


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