Trust—or the belief that someone or something can be relied on to do what they say they will—is a key element of social relationships and a foundation for cooperation. It is critical for romantic relationships, friendships, interactions between strangers, and social groups on a large scale, and a lack of trust in such scenarios can come with serious consequences. Indeed, society as a whole would likely fail to function in the absence of trust.
The sense that one can depend on another person lays the groundwork for social exchanges yielding benefits like affection, a sense of security, and achievements that would be impossible alone. When trust is absent—or someone betrays the trust that has been invested in them—the possibility of a successful future relationship diminishes.
Trust comes in as many varieties as there are links between people. In well-functioning relationships, individuals can trust that a parent or romantic partner will show them love, that business partners will hold up their end of a deal, and that someone in a position of power will wield it responsibly. To an extent, people also trust complete strangers—doctors, taxi drivers, first-time babysitters—to follow social rules and not to take advantage of them or their loved ones despite the opportunity.
Trust is a cornerstone of any social relationship, whether romantic, professional, or between friends. People who trust each other can work together more effectively at home, at work, or elsewhere. They are also more willing to share intimate information, which can reduce the risk of anxiety and depression and build a stronger sense of self.
Trust is key for collaboration, the open exchange of ideas, and a strong workplace culture. Workplaces high in trust have less turnover, improved relationships, and less susceptibility to groupthink. Workers in low-trust organizations are less likely to speak up or to help others who need it, which can weaken morale and the company’s bottom line.
Trust is, in many ways, the key to social harmony. Group members who trust each other will be more willing to cooperate, and will thus be able to achieve more than individual members alone; trust also cultivates a larger sense of safety and allows individuals to devote energy to social improvements, rather than self-protection.
Because motivations and responses vary widely across situations, it’s likely not possible to say whether or not most people can be trusted all of the time. However, the belief that most people are generally trustworthy, known as “generalized trust,” appears to be correlated with higher intelligence, better health, and overall life satisfaction.
Trustworthiness is a key element of moral character, along with other positive traits like honesty, courage, and a prediction for fairness. Those who behave with integrity are more likely to earn the trust of others, which is often the cornerstone of a strong first impression and, ultimately, a healthy and rewarding relationship.
Recent neuroscience research on the mechanisms of trust suggests that human brains are naturally prone to trusting others. In one study, brain regions associated with positive emotions and decision-making lit up when someone trusted a close associate to play a game fairly, indicating that feelings of trust trigger social reward centers in the brain.
Yes, levels of trust vary widely between cultures. Americans, for instance, have been found to be more trusting than Germans or the Japanese. Levels of trust can even vary within societies; Northern Italians, for example, have been found to be more willing than Southern Italians to keep money in banks, which indicates greater societal trust.
Trust involves a degree of vulnerability. In trusting that a co-worker will follow through on a promise to help with a project, one risks the possibility that the colleague will renege at the last minute. Trusting a romantic partner to remain faithful opens a person up to the risk of crushing betrayal.
When trust is warranted, however, the return on investment can be great and significantly benefit mental well-being. Thus, the ability to determine who one can and cannot trust—and to appropriately update these perceptions over time—is vital. But it’s often not an easy judgment to make—especially because some individuals excel at winning the trust of people they intend to victimize.
How, then, can we know who to trust? It could be useful to consider specific characteristics when deciding whether, how much, and in what ways to trust another person. Judging someone's intentions can be helpful, but intentions—as well as confidence—can be misleading. Trusting someone to help solve a difficult problem requires that one make an assessment of their competence, too.
Trusting unknown people may seem ill-advised, but it’s something most people do every day. Researchers have proposed several potential explanations for why we trust strangers, including mutual benefit (we trust others based on the assumption that doing so will likely benefit both parties) and social norms (we trust others because we believe we’re expected to).
Trustworthy people share several key traits. The most obvious is their follow-through: they do what they say they will do. Research has also found that trustworthy people, especially leaders, tend to be transparent in their decision-making and motivation, listen to others’ input, and put the interests of others over their own self-interest.
Yes. High levels of certain personality traits, including agreeableness and conscientiousness, consistently predict trustworthiness. Other personality characteristics also play a role; for instance, guilt-proneness, or one’s tendency to anticipate feeling guilt after wrongdoing, is highly predictive of trustworthiness in one study.
Yes, certain people are unusually prone to trusting others even when there are clear indicators that they are untrustworthy. This is often attributed to personality traits such as high levels of agreeableness or openness. Williams Syndrome, a rare disorder sometimes called the “opposite of autism,” leads those who live with it to treat everyone, even strangers, as trustworthy, which can lead to negative consequences.
Some people can be highly trusting of others, which is often a matter of personality; people higher on the personality trait of agreeableness, for example, tend to more readily indicate that they find other people trustworthy. But for others—particularly those who have been victimized or betrayed in the past—building trust can be a slow, laborious process; for some, it may feel downright impossible.
Many people who are consistently distrusting have good reason for being so. But a tendency not to trust others can have severe consequences in a number of domains—particularly interpersonal relationships—and can exacerbate loneliness, depression, or antisocial behavior. Though mistrustful individuals often feel as though they have a right to feel that way, working with a professional to identify the root cause of trust issues and take steps toward overcoming them can be immensely helpful for improving well-being and cultivating healthy relationships.
Anxiety can make it difficult to know who to trust. But while negative emotions, including anxiety, may result in excessive distrust, that’s not the only possible outcome. In one study, anxious participants actually found it more difficult to recognize untrustworthy people, and continued to collaborate with them even when their behavior did not warrant it.
Chronic distrust—colloquially known as “trust issues”—have several possible sources. For some, early relationships with caregivers taught them that their needs would not be met and that others would continuously let them down. Trauma can also damage trust; traumatized individuals often find it difficult to let their guard down, even with loved ones. Trust issues may also be a matter of personality; naturally less agreeable people tend to be more prone to distrusting others.
Some people who struggle to trust can pinpoint a specific traumatic event that shattered their worldview. For others, it may be a matter of personality; less agreeable individuals, for instance, tend to be less trusting. Distrust may also be due to neglectful or distant caregivers relaying early-life messages that others cannot be consistently relied on.
Feeling eternally distrusted by a partner can be enormously painful. In some cases, personality disorders (such as borderline personality disorder) may lead people to “test” their partner’s trustworthiness with repeated accusations. Other distrustful partners may have been hurt in the past, or grew up in an environment where a trusting nature was taken advantage of.
On an interpersonal level, the ability to trust others who have earned it—and, in certain instances, to repair trust after it’s been broken—are essential to emotional well-being and strong, healthy relationships. On a larger scale, improving trust between group members can help workplaces, organizations, and societies function more smoothly by increasing social harmony and laying the groundwork for heightened productivity.
While improving trust isn’t always easy—and takes serious dedication from all parties involved—it is possible the majority of the time. Moving slowly when necessary, communicating honestly, and following through on promises are all key to building trust, whether between individuals, within an organization, or between countries.
Romantic partners, friends, or family members can build trust in their relationship through mutual respect; open, honest communication; engaging in an equal amount of give and take; and gradually displaying more vulnerability around each other. Following through on promises consistently also helps to build trust over time.
Yes, but it can be difficult. Betrayed individuals who are struggling to trust may find it helpful to work with a therapist. They can also take “calculated risks” around those they are considering trusting—sharing a small bit of intimate information and observing how it is received and how they feel—before gradually increasing their investment.
Partners can regain trust after infidelity through a process of rigorous honesty—from both parties—and through the slow, deliberate demonstration that the trust-breaker is sorry, has taken responsibility for their actions, and can be counted on going forward. Working with a therapist can help many couples navigate this process in a healthy, respectful way.
Learning to trust oneself requires self-compassion and patience. Many people who don’t trust their own instincts or second-guess their choices received early-life messages that they were unimportant, unintelligent, or otherwise “bad.” Deliberately identifying and challenging those messages—with the help of a trusted therapist, if necessary—is necessary to regaining self-trust.
Those looking to trust again—either after a significant betrayal or after a lifetime of smaller hurts—are advised to cultivate open, honest communication while gradually increasing the level of vulnerability they display with others. Once someone has demonstrated that they can be trusted with small intimacies, it will feel easier to let one’s guard down further.
While it’s not always possible for trust issues to be “cured,” their effects can certainly be lessened. Therapy, as well as a deliberate focus on practicing self-compassion and vulnerability, can help someone lessen their natural tendency to distrust others and build (or rebuild) healthy relationships.
Organizations can increase trust by promoting accountability, making both progress and setbacks public, engaging in ethical practices at each level of the organization, and seeking and incorporating input from all employees. After a misstep, those responsible can help restore trust by owning the mistake and outlining a clear plan for stopping it from recurring.
Building societal trust is both a top-down and a bottom-up process. From the top, governments can promote trust by increasing transparency around decision-making, not tolerating corruption, and encouraging and incorporating community input. From the bottom, positive actions that build “social capital”—like volunteering, altruism, and cooperation—have been associated with increased societal trust.