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Building Trust in Virtual Relationships

We must learn to interpret partial transparency and translucence.

Key points

  • Many people immerse themselves in virtual communities, which generate an illusion of transparency and may make people trust too quickly.
  • Everyone has a private self and full transparency may be undesirable. Partial transparency, or translucence, is inherent to human personality.
  • Not assuming nor expecting too much from virtual relating can help people focus on the work and interactions that go into building trust.

If we genuinely trust each other, we can take some important things for granted. It is then possible to assume others’ values, core beliefs, and how they are likely to think and act. Most importantly, interpersonal trust binds us together in mutual empathy and commitment.

Photo by Marcelo Chagas from Pexels
Trusting Relationships
Source: Photo by Marcelo Chagas from Pexels

Culture plays a major role. It provides shared values and norms about the right way to behave and what counts as true and meaningful.

Though in all situations, it remains important to share experience and conversation over time. Culture provides a good foundation, but there is still work to do. Genuine trust develops as we interact with each other in the world.

Dilemmas of Digital Trust

Digitalization has positive and negative implications for interpersonal trust. On the upside, digital technologies allow us to share more widely and frequently. We can connect almost anywhere at any time. This vastly broadens the potential for communication and relating. And the more we share, the greater the potential for trust.

On the downside, however, digital connection is often detached from lived experience. Many people immerse themselves in a flow of images and messages which only generate an illusion of transparency. Yet they quickly trust those in the same virtual space. Granted, online networks can be very rewarding, but much remains filtered and hidden. For similar reasons, data scientists are developing more explainable AI.

Newer digital innovations amplify the risks. Advanced artificial intelligence is starting to sense human mood and can imitate empathy. Increasingly, AI is not only fast and accurate but empathic as well. No surprise that many people trust what arrives via digital means. But here, too, the process is far from transparent. Even if artificial empathy is broadly beneficial, it is not the same as human reality.

Limits of Transparency

In fact, complete transparency is rare at the best of times and may be undesirable. Everyone has a private self which should often remain that way. We need the inner freedom to imagine and evolve. In any case, gradually discovering each other is one of the delights of human relating.

Such partial transparency, or translucence, is inherent to human personality. As some leading psychologists argue, including Walter Mischel and Albert Bandura, human beings are not stable combinations of fixed and knowable traits. Rather, they are complex, open, adaptive systems, with a set of core habits, but otherwise highly variable and idiosyncratic.

Joshua Oyebanji on Unsplash
Trust in Translucence
Source: Joshua Oyebanji on Unsplash

From this perspective, limited transparency reflects fundamental features of personality. People are always partially translucent to each other, and even to themselves. As I explain in my recent book Augmented Humanity, the new challenge is how to build trust through digitalized translucence.

Trusting Through Translucence

Part of the solution is regulatory. We need better governance of virtual environments to suppress discrimination and deception. Another factor is for companies and networks to adopt appropriate codes of conduct. These establish rules and norms which underpin trust.

Individuals have a major role to play as well. To begin with, we should value and celebrate the translucence of our inner lives. Neither assuming nor expecting too much from virtual relating. Instead, accept that human beings are never fully or quickly transparent, whether online or offline. As Cass Sunstein explains, it is important to understand what we do and don’t need to know in any context. But always seek evidence of other's values, character, and commitments.

Also be aware of illusions of control. Just because AI is fast and powerful, it does not mean that information is transparent and trustworthy. In other words, do not confuse the medium with the message. Digitalization certainly connects us, but it does not replace the work of building trust in virtual relationships.


Bryant, P. T. (2021). Augmented Humanity: Being and Remaining Agentic in a Digitalized World, Palgrave Macmillan.

Rust, R. T. and M.-H. Huang (2021). The Feeling Economy: How Artificial Intelligence is Creating the Era of Empathy, Springer Nature.

Sunstein, C. R. (2020). Too Much Information: Understanding What you Don't Want to Know, MIT Press.

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