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Why Trust Matters

Trust is a key element of social relationships and a foundation for cooperation. It 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 a 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. Society would fail to function in the absence of this baseline 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.

For some, building, or rebuilding, trust takes longer than it does for others. People higher on the personality trait of agreeableness, for example, tend to more readily indicate that they find other people trustworthy.

How Do We Know Who to Trust?

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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, the return on investment can be great and significantly benefit mental well-being. So the ability to determine who one can and cannot trust—and to appropriately update these perceptions over time—is vital. It’s often not an easy judgment to make. Some individuals, such as psychopaths, excel at winning the trust of the people they intend to victimize. And some people can be overly trusting or dispositionally distrustful.

It could be useful to consider specific characteristics when deciding whether, how much, and in what ways to trust another person. A highly confident friend or colleague may have benevolent intentions. But, tempting as it may be to give them the benefit of the doubt, trusting them to help solve a difficult problem requires that one can rely on their competence, too.

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