Updated: Jul 28
Most articles and books about trust focus on what you can do to be (more) trusted and how you can tell whether you can trust another person (or thing). Rarely do they address the question, what is trust, really? This article will answer this question by answering another question: why do we trust? Or even better, why do we need to trust? To answer those questions, this article will address five components: reward, risk, fear, safety, giving control, and expectations. At the end of the article, you will find the definition of trust, as described in The Book of TRUST (3rd Edition).
At the highest level, trust is what you need to get a reward while feeling safe.
Risk and Reward
You heard this before, “where there is no risk, there is no reward.” The trust “chain” begins with seeking a reward. If the reward could have been obtained without taking any risk, anyone would do it. It’s a no-brainer. You take small risks when you make risk-free investments (such as FDIC-insured CDs). But those investments typically provide very little gain, too. When you invest in an individual small-cap stock, you are taking a much higher risk, but the upside could be great, as well. When you decide to start a startup company and quit your well-paying job, you are taking the risk of potentially losing your steady income. Still, the reward is dramatic if you get founder stock options and the company goes public. Piloting a plane, riding a motorcycle, or skydiving are exhilarating (to some) but carry a significant risk with them, too. What makes it a risk are the potential negative consequences (losing money, losing your life, etc.). The greater those are, the higher the risk is.
Risk vs. Fear
Risk is objective. If you invest or lend $1,000 to someone, the risk you are taking is losing those $1,000. That’s objective and absolute. However, the level of fear you have of that risk is subjective and thus changes from person to person. If those $1,000 are all the money you have to your name, you would be more afraid of losing them than someone with millions. Fear is the subjective interpretation of the objective risk you face, and it is impacted by your circumstances and your comprehension of that risk. Some people consider a certain risk higher or lower than you. Knowledge plays a significant role here.
Trust must compensate for the subjective fear of the objective risk you are exposed to. You feel you must trust someone (or something) because you want to feel safe. When the level of trust you have in someone (or something) is high enough to compensate for your fear of doing something, you feel safe. When the level of trust you have in them is lower than needed to compensate for the level of fear, you feel danger. You can look at it this way: as long as you believe that the magnitude and probability of the negative consequences are lower than the probability and effectiveness of the person (or object) in eliminating those negative consequences, you would feel safe. We are taking a risk because we trust someone (or something) to eliminate the negative consequences so that we can get the reward. What about “adrenaline junkies?” People who take unnecessary risks? They, too, actually feel safe and trust someone (or something, or even themselves or God) to eliminate the potential negative consequences. They are probably less afraid of the magnitude of those consequences (or the probability of them materializing).
When you trust, you give control over something that you currently control to another person (or thing). When you place a high-risk investment in stock, when the possible negative consequences could be the loss of your entire investment, you trust the company you invested in to minimize that risk by running their business as well as you expect them to. When you board an airplane, you are undergoing voluntary surgery, you are giving control over your life to the surgeon. Either way, you are giving control over something, or you will not really be taking the risk and not have to trust. Who do you give control to? Who do you trust? This list typically includes yourself, other people, God, and other things (who serve as proxies to people you don’t know. For example, trusting an airplane really means trusting the people who built it and maintained it). Different people distribute trust among those four differently. Some people are more religious and trust God more than others. Some people trust themselves more than others.
At some point in the movie Shrek, Donkey and Shrek were tied up and hung from their feet in a dungeon. Donkey started yelling, “What about my Miranda rights? You're supposed to say, ‘You have the right to remain silent.’ Nobody said I have the right to remain silent!” To that, Shrek replied, “Donkey, you have the right to remain silent. What you lack is the capacity.”
You don’t just give control to someone. You have two expectations from them regarding their attitudes towards the possible negative consequences you might incur if they fail to protect you from them. One is that they are willing and intend to minimize those negative consequences. The other is that they have the ability or the capacity to do that. In the event that the pilot becomes incapacitated, you better believe that the flight attendant is willing and has all intentions of landing the plane, but you might worry about her ability to do that. On the other hand, you may be trusting someone to do something because they have the ability to do it well, but if they lack the intention and willingness, should you trust them?
The Definition of Trust
It’s time to put everything together and give you the complete definition of trust as provided in The Book of TRUST, 3rd Edition:
Trust is the level to which you are willing to accept the potential negative consequences of giving control over something you have to another entity, expecting them to be able and do their best to avoid those consequences.
Want to hear more? Listen to the latest episode of The Trust Show Podcast: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/s6e3-why-do-we-trust/id1569249060?i=1000570207505
Dr. Yoram Solomon is a trust expert, author of The Book of Trust, host of The Trust Show podcast, a two-time TEDx speaker, and facilitator of the Trust Habits workshop that helps build trust in organizations.