Do you trust the “right” amount?: Trust does matter.
By Ken J. Rotenberg1, Lucy Betts2, and Pamela Qualter3
“You may be deceived if you trust too much, but you will live in torment if you do not trust enough.” Frank Crane
Is Crane’s observation accurate? Do persons have psychosocial problems when they trust too much and when they trust too little? In that regard, what is the “right” amount of trust? There is some evidence to support Crane’s observations in everyday life. There are reports of people who lose their life savings to a con artist because of trusting too much. Regarding trusting too little, a paranoid schizophrenic’s intense distrust in others likely causes him or her to fail to achieve closeness with others. Researchers have begun to accumulate evidence regarding both forms of trust and their potential for causing psychosocial problems.
Are there consequences of trusting too little? There is a growing body research showing that low trust promotes psychosocial problems, notably loneliness. We (Rotenberg et al., 2010) have found that low trust beliefs predicted loneliness across time in three age groups (early childhood, middle childhood, and young adulthood) and thus that low trust beliefs likely contribute to the experience of loneliness. Social disengagement was responsible, in part, for that relation. Specifically, low trusting individuals tended not to affiliate with others (e.g., have reciprocal friends) and therefore they experienced elevated loneliness. Finally, we found that holding low trust beliefs directly contributes to the experience of loneliness. In one of our studies, young adults were required to memorize words describing distrust (i.e., primed for distrust) or memorize words describing trust (i.e., primed for trust). It was found that young adults who had been primed for distrust reported experiencing greater feelings of loneliness and feelings of withdrawal, as well as a lesser willingness to disclose, than did those had been primed for trust. In other studies (Qualter et al., 2013) we found that low trust beliefs in others predict high loneliness, as well as depressive symptoms and poor general health, across the period of childhood and adolescence. The findings support Crane’s observation in that they show that individuals who hold low trust beliefs are predisposed to experience elevated loneliness and other psychosocial problems.
What are the consequences of trusting too much? There is a scarcity of research addressing this question but the number of studies examining it is growing. In a review of the research, Rotter (1980) concluded that holding high trusting beliefs was not associated with low psychosocial functioning, notably being gullible. Unfortunately, the research described by Rotter (1980) utilized median splits on trust beliefs and classified individuals as above the median or below a median on those beliefs. This statistical method was not sufficient to examine the issue. To do so required the consideration of the complete range of trust beliefs -- spanning from very low to very high trust beliefs -- and the relation between those levels of trust and psychosocial functioning. We employed that analysis strategy in a series of studies and found evidence to support of Crane’s observations. For example, we (Rotenberg, Boulton, & Fox, 2005) found that school-age children with very high and those with very low trust beliefs in peers were more rejected by peers, more excluded by peers, and held lower perceptions of self-perceived social acceptance, than did school-age children with the midrange of trust beliefs. Also, the children with very high and those with very low trust beliefs showed elevated levels of psychological maladjustment (loneliness, depression, and anxiety) across time in comparison to the children with the midrange of trust beliefs. In a very recent study (Rotenberg, Qualter, Barrett, & Henzi, in press), we found that those relations between trust beliefs and psychosocial problems extended to children’s peer interactions in the playground. For example, girls with very low trust beliefs in peers and those with very high trust beliefs in peers showed greater problems in peer interactions (including indirect aggression, rejection by peers, and distress) than did girls with the midrange of trust beliefs in peers. Similar relations have been found in even very young children (i.e., 4 to 6-years of age). We (Betts, Rotenberg, & Trueman, 2009) found that young children with very low and those with very high generalized trust beliefs in others reported greater loneliness and having fewer friendships than did young children with the midrange of generalized trust beliefs in others
The preceding line of research yields support for Crane’s observation by showing that both very low trusting and very high trusting individuals show psychosocial problems. The question is why do we find those patterns? As we mentioned, individuals with low (and very low) trust beliefs have psychosocial problems because they are inclined to be detached from others, feel lonely and feel withdrawn. We (Rotenberg, Boulton, & Fox, 2005) have proposed that individuals with very high trust beliefs have psychosocial problems because they are at risk of being betrayed by others such as being vulnerable to violations of confidentiality of disclosure. Finally, we (Rotenberg, Boulton, & Fox, 2005) have proposed that individuals with very low trust beliefs and those with very high trust beliefs have psychosocial problems because they violate the norms of trust beliefs held by their peers. These individuals have psychosocial problems because they hold trust beliefs that substantively deviate from those held by their peers.
How do I know if I trust the “right” amount? Unfortunately, there are no simple criteria by which to determine whether you (or someone you know) trusts the “right” amount. The research findings provide some potential answers to that question, however. For example, an individual could assess the normal range of trust beliefs from interacting with others and could avoid holding trust beliefs that are either very low or very high. Another suggestion is provided by the Basis, Domain, and Target interpersonal trust framework (see Rotenberg, Betts, & Qualter, Dec. 5, 2013 -- Psychology Today Blog) which posits that trust in a dyad is guided by reciprocity: trusting beliefs and behavior tend to become matched over the course of dyadic interactions to establish a common psychosocial history for the persons involved. In that context, the “right” level of trust depends on the history of the exchanges of trust beliefs and behaviour between an individual and the other person in a dyadic relationship. The right level of trust for an individual regarding a given relationship is best based on the history of exchanges of trust beliefs and behavior between him or her and the other person.
Affiliations and Acknowledgment
1 Professor Ken J. Rotenberg, School of Psychology, Keele University, Keele, Newcastle -Under-Lyme, Staffordshire, UK, ST5 5BH, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
2. Dr. Lucy Betts, Senior Lecturer, Division of Psychology, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK, NG1 4BU, e-mail: email@example.com
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.
Betts, L. R., Rotenberg, K. J. & Trueman, M. (2009). The Early Childhood Generalised Trust Belief Scale. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 25, 175-185. Click Here for Link: http://www.journals.elsevier.com/early-childhood-research-quarterly/
Crane, F. quoted in Business Education World, Vol. 15 (1935) p. 172.
Qualter, P., Brown, S. L., Rotenberg, K. J., Vanhalst, J, Harris, R.A., Goossens, L, Bangee, M. & Munn, P. (2013). Trajectories of loneliness during childhood and adolescence: Predictors and health outcomes. Journal of Adolescence: Special Issue on Loneliness, 36, 1283-1293. Chick Here for Link: http://clok.uclan.ac.uk/7206/
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 Psychosocial Psychology Bulletin, 36, 1086-1100. Click Here for Link: http://psp.sagepub.com/
Rotenberg, K. J. Betts, L. R., & Qualter, P. (2013, Dec 5). To trust or not to trust: That is the question. Psychology Today Blog.
Rotenberg, K. J., Boulton, M. J., & Fox, C. (2005). Cross-sectional and longitudinal relations among trust beliefs, psychological maladjustment, and psychosocial relationships, during childhood: Are very high as well as very low trusting children at risk? Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 33, 595-610. Click Here for Link: http://link.springer.com/journal/10802
Rotenberg, K. J., Qualter, P., Barrett, L., & Henzi, P. (in press). When trust fails: Children’s trust beliefs in peers and peer interactions in a natural setting. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology. Click Here for Link: http://link.springer.com/journal/10802