Why It Pays to Trust

A willingness to trust others can have profound psychological implications.

Posted Nov 17, 2014

A Culture of Distrust?

According to PEW Research the percentage of Americans who say they trust the government to do the right thing on their behalf has fallen from 73% in 1958 to just 19% in 2013 (http://pewrsr.ch/11mfOuT). What going on in 1958? For one thing, veterans were still qualifying for federal subsidies for their education as well as in purchasing a first home. Social Security provided a rock solid safety net for older citizens. Manufacturing was booming. People tended to work for the same company for many years, earning pensions that could be counted on in the process.  Politics was most likely no more driven by altruism than it is today, but the American infrastructure was fundamentally firm and resilient. This was a culture in which it may have been easier to trust, both in terms of personal relationships and the perception of the role of government.

A lot has changed since 1958. The above survey tends to confirm a belief that our culture as a whole appears to have become more cynical, skeptical, and distrustful, perhaps in part because of these changes. Job security and defined pensions, for example, are increasingly rare. And there is frequent talk in government circles about altering the Social Security safety net as well. The politicians tell us not to worry—but do we believe them? So it may make sense that people are less trusting today.

This trend toward distrust on a macro scale raises the question of whether people have moved toward coming less trusting in their personal relationships as well. And what, if any, are the implications of that distrust?  Some early research on interpersonal trust suggests that they may be significant.

Research on Interpersonal Trust

In the 1960s psychologist Julian Rotter embarked on a series of studies of interpersonal trust which were subsequently published in the prestigious journal American Psychologist (1). Rotter defined trust as a “generalized expectancy” that “the verbal statements of others can be relied upon.” He considered trust be a personality trait, meaning that a trusting individual would be inclined to bring that expectation into many different situations and relationships.

The core of Rotter’s studies was an instrument he developed: the Interpersonal Trust Scale (2). This scale, and Rotter’s concept of trust as a trait that is more general than situation-specific, has re-emerged recently in the field of “behavioral economics” (which I will cover in a subsequent post.

In a series of studies Rotter measured individuals’ trust in a variety of situations, ranging from political to close friendships. He was interested not only in seeing how trust might relate to other variables, such as personal happiness, but also interested in seeing whether trusting people were also more gullible, as some colleagues had suggested. So Rotter also asked questions included situations in which it was likely that a person could be taken advantage of if he or she were too trusting, for example being asked to “loan” money to a stranger or an undefined charity. 

What Rotter Found

Dr. Rotter’s research on interpersonal trust, as reported in the references cited below, can be summarized as follows:

  • People who trust are less likely to lie, and are less likely to cheat or steal.

  • Trusting people are more likely to give others a second chance.

  • Those who trust tend to respect the rights of others.

  • The person who is inclined to be trusting is less likely to be unhappy, conflicted, or maladjusted.

  • The pan or woman who is basically trusting is liked more and sought out more often as a friend.

  • Contrary to the expectations of some, Rotter did not find that high trusters were more gullible than low trusters.

Implications of Early Research on Trust

Let’s address the last finding first. It’s been my experience that some skeptics remain skeptics. They just can’t swallow the notion that a person can be basically trusting of others but not gullible. Are you in that camp? If so, how do you think your basically skeptical attitude might affect your relationships?

It would appear, based on Rotter’s careful and peer-reviewed research, that it pays to be trusting: to believe that others can be taken at their word. (unless you have proof to the contrary). If you are able to take that leap of faith, it would seem that you are likely to be a happier individual, to be well-liked and have a larger circle of friends, and to be relatively “well adjusted.” At the same time, you are more trustworthy and inclined to give those who offend a second chance.

How well does the above describe you? Do you believe that you have been better off, overall, being a trusting person? And if it does not describe you, in what ways might your inclination to distrust affect you, both psychologically and with respect to your relationships? Finally, is it possible that Dr. Rotter’s findings are as relevant today as they were several decades ago?


  1. Rotter, J.B. (1971) Generalized expectancies for interpersonal trust. American Psychologist, 26, 443-452.

  2. Rotter, J.B. (1967) A new scale for the measurement of interpersonal trust. Journal of Personality, 35 (4) 651-655.

Joseph Nowinski, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in Connecticut. His new book, If You Work It, It Works: The Science Behind 12 Step Recovery, is available for pre-order at www.hazelden.org/bookstore.