Ipsos MORI Thinks

Modelling trust: What is it, how do I do it and how do I earn it?


ALIYA MIRZA Research Manager

With increasing frequency, clients from every part of our business routinely ask us about trust. And they’re right to. Trust is the building block of friendships, love, families, organisations and workplaces. It matters for economic, political and social success.15 When asking about how to be successful, clients are partly asking: how do I maintain or increase trust from my audiences, where should I place my trust and how does trust work?

However, most of the conversations and debates around trust often leave out the crucial question of what trust actually means (either practically or philosophically). It’s a question that academia has been debating for years: the landscape is a complex map of theories, counter theories and contradictions. Unfortunately there is no common understanding of what constitutes trust, or how to measure it. It’s at least clear that trust is highly contextual, and we would argue there can be no ’one-size-fits-all’ model of trust which will suit every purpose and occasion. So our aim here is to cover some of the main components of trust that appear in academic models to help build up a framework through which the rest of the articles are understood.

Types of trust 

But before exploring what trust means, the first thing to acknowledge is that trust functions on many different levels. It is clear that what would inspire someone to trust in a neighbour is very different to what would inspire trust in a coffee shop or a governmental system. Trust between individuals (interpersonal trust) is qualitatively different from institutional or organisational trust, or trust in systems, but on the other hand, some of the underlying factors are similar.

We will examine these various concepts of trust elsewhere in this report; but at least here, tackling the basic meaning of trust, it makes sense to do so through the paradigm of interpersonal trust. Trust between individuals is often argued to form the foundation of other types of trust.16 This is reflected in some of our own work for clients. For example, we find that brand relationships function in many ways like human-to-human relationships and, in fact, are often directly to do with relationships between humans, such as the impact of employees’ behaviour on your customers’ satisfaction.17

What is trust?

So how can you increase interpersonal trust? Although there is not a clear answer, the aim of most academic models of trust is to provide tools to do just that. However, often models contradict, overlap or use different terms for the same concept.

So cutting through the conceptual quagmire, there are three dimensions to trust that consistently pop up across the academic trust models. As Hardin champions, trust is “generally a three part relation: A trusts B to do X”.18

  • How to trust. The trustor must have some capabilities or characteristics that enable the transaction of trust.
  • Who to trust. The trustee must have some ability to be trustworthy or have some characteristics that make them so.
  • What you’re trusting them to do. Trust is contextual and can mean different things in practice in different scenarios. We generally trust people to do certain things, for example to look after my belongings on a train, or to tell me the right directions. We rarely trust people unconditionally or completely.

So, it is not enough to ask “what is trust?” or “how can I increase trust?”. We have to ask “who trusts who to do what?”. Different models of trust flesh out these bare bones of trust in different ways. As we deal with each of these dimensions in turn, we’ll draw on some of the different theories that elaborate or emphasise
these elements.

How to trust

Let’s start with the trustor. In order to inspire trust in someone, we must ourselves have some ability or be in conditions through which trust can blossom.

Be vulnerable, be optimistic and have a ‘propensity to trust’

First, trust models often underline the necessity of vulnerability. Trust requires the trustor to be vulnerable. There must be some risk, some possibility that one can lose out, or be disappointed, as a result. If it was an absolute certainty that the stranger on the train would look after my laptop, then running to the on-train café and back wouldn’t involve trust. As humans are unreliable things, most social interaction will involve some risk of disappointment – “trust is a device for coping with the freedom of others”.19

Secondly, trust requires a healthy dose of optimism from the trustor – a willingness to believe that someone will be honest or do what they say they will. Govier underlines this in her book on social trust.20 People cannot trust one another if their automatic reaction is to be suspicious or assume the worst about the other, as in “it wasn’t an accident – he broke my watch on purpose because he doesn’t care about my feelings”. This balance of optimism can tip to pessimism depending on the circumstances.

Mayer, Roger and Schoorman’s interactive model of trust expands this, adding the variable of ’trustor’s propensity’. Some people are simply more trusting than others – regardless of the circumstances. This means that you are not always going to be able to increase a certain individual’s trust in you – no matter what you do or who you are. The model says that propensity to trust depends on life experiences and personality type, but also takes into account cultural background – underlining cultural diversity in trusting behaviour21 (for example, Robert Putnam’s research finding Scandinavians are more trusting wherever you put them).

Making the judgement – reasoning and ‘leaping’

Trust then also needs the trustor to make a judgement about the trustworthiness of the trustee. This judgement can be both rational and emotional, and different models of trust emphasise the importance of each.

There has to be a rational element – we do at least try to cognitively calculate the level of risk when we trust someone. As I square up the stranger on the train, I’ll think through reasons why it seems a decent probability they won’t make off with my laptop. For starters – they can’t get far.

But many argue having robust, rational reasons to trust someone is not enough to ensure trust. We’re not robots and we simply don’t have time to go through and weigh up all possible scenarios.

Another human’s brain is completely unreachable to us – the true probability of the stranger making off with my laptop isn’t written down for me – and is why trust involves a risk in the first place. As Giddens argues, it’s not just about coping with the freedom of others – it’s about lack of full information.22

So ultimately there is an emotional dimension to trust. There’s a kind of magic to trusting – called a ‘leap’ or ‘suspension’ in the academic literature.23 We sometimes trust people to do things even though evidence seems stacked against them. Experiments show that people will reject what they see as an unfair offer (even if in absolute terms it leaves them better off).24 Why we do this is unclear – George Simmel saw this as the mystical faith of one human in another.25

David DeSteno argues this ‘mystical faith’ actually has a biological basis. The hormone oxytocin, sometimes called the ‘love hormone’ due to its presence during hugging, sex and childbirth, has been linked to various social emotions too.26 Recent studies have also shown that oxytocin can increase feelings of trust27 by increasing people’s willingness to take social risks. Fiddling about with customer’s hormone levels is out of reach for most of our clients, but it’s an interesting insight into how trust could be an integral part of our DNA.

How to be trustworthy 

Even if there is an emotional element to trust – part of the judgement mentioned above is the assessment of other people’s trustworthiness. Trustworthiness itself is a character or behavioural trait of the person who wishes to be trusted and something to aim for to increase trust.28     

Be competent and reliable

Broadly, there are at least two drivers of trustworthiness that come up again and again in the different models of trust: competence and reliability.

As we have seen, trust is contextual. It is the requirement to have competence or skills in something that locks trust into a specific domain. To be trustworthy to someone, you don’t have to be good at everything, but you do have to have an ability pertaining to a certain thing.29 For example, my plumber may be highly competent at pipework, but completely useless at singing. I can therefore trust her to fix an overflowing toilet, but wouldn’t let her near a stage. In order to build up trust, it’s important to show you are competent at the things that matter for your business context – very few people will trust you completely.

But it’s also argued that it’s not enough to be good at something – you must also be reliable. To be dependable, there must be some clear motivation communicated to the trustor. In our example, I have to see my plumber is committed to fixing the toilet – she could have all the competency in the world but remain unmotivated to get up and do it. This motivation could come from a variety of places (including that I’m paying her).

Philosopher Phillip Pettit has outlined three different types of trust, each of which incorporates higher levels of buy-in from the
trustee.30 The most fundamental of the three levels is basic trust, which combines the concepts of competence and reliability. This is what we often think of trust, essentially that we can expect others to behave in a consistent and coherent way.

Avoid self-interest                  

However, some models like Maister’s Trust Equation posit that not all types of motivation can lead to trustworthiness. For Maister, motivation cannot be purely self-oriented.31 He argues even if you have competency and reliability, but appear to be self-oriented, i.e. acting in your own self-interest, then you can completely undermine your own efforts to be trustworthy: banks for example, might suffer here.

Others call this ’benevolence’ – or the extent to which a trustee is believed to want to do good to the trustor, aside from an egocentric profit motive.32 From this model, I need to see at least some degree of personal kindness within my plumber. If she talked solely about money or showed little motivation other than getting my money, I’d be slightly less inclined to trust her, however good she was at plumbing.

This chimes with Pettit’s next level of trust. Once basic trust has been achieved, the next level of consideration is whether the other party will treat you well. Do they have your well-being in mind when they make decisions and conduct their affairs? This is called active trust. Getting these sorts of ‘duty of care’ activities right offers brands a way of starting to build more meaningful levels of trust.

Have integrity and shared values

A perceived level of integrity is also sometimes seen to be important in the evaluation of trustworthiness. ‘Integrity’ is a complex concept that leads to various spin-off arguments, but McFall defines integrity as encompassing honesty, fair treatment and the avoidance of hypocrisy.33 Your perceived level of integrity will be tied up in your past actions, whether and how often people vouch for you and whether your actions match up with what you say – all of which are regular measurements of an individual’s (and indeed a politician or a company’s) reputation.

Pettit’s third level of trust – interactive trust – builds on this, moving trust from fairly functional aspects of a relationship, to a very human set of characteristics. This type of trustworthiness means we expect the very act of trusting someone should bring out the best in them. Think of the stranger on the train who I ask to mind my bag. Pettit’s interactive trust suggests that my trust in them will motivate them to help deliver on that trust. But why do we feel this way? Because we want to be well considered – we want others to think well of us. Another’s assessment of us as trustworthy means we are often motivated to ‘rise to the occasion’.

From trust to trustworthiness

While different ways of conceptualising or understanding trust have their values, for our purpose of investigating the so-called ‘crisis in trust’, the idea of ‘trustworthiness’ is actually more useful. We have taken Pettit’s levels of trust and the three key elements of ‘trustworthiness’ – be competent and reliable; avoid self-interest, and; have integrity and shared values – as our foundation.

Basic trust

  • It is reliable/keeps its promises
  • It is good at what it does

Active trust

  • It behaves responsibly
  • It is open and transparent about what it does
  • It is well led

Interactive trust

  • It does what it does with the best of intentions
  • It shares my values
  • It would try to take advantage of me if it could

In another section of this report, we analyse our latest data to understand what factors are most important to our decision to trust an organisation – the drivers of trustworthiness.

Trust: The Truth?

We decided to write this report because we wanted to test if the prevailing narrative matched the data. The ‘truth about trust’ is that trust is complex, and takes many forms (many of these forms are not in crisis or decline). Without some degree of trust society simply would not function…