Trust – A scientific discussion
In the first article we argued that the term trust has to be well defined. This article will have look at a scientific debate about this concept. Part II – By Christian Miess
Due to the need for a scientific definition of trust, /e-politik.de/ spoke to two scientists who have recently worked on this particular issue. In this article, we will follow their arguments to outline their approaches to the concept of trust. Prof. Dr. Bornewasser (right) holds a professorship of social psychology and organization psychology at Greifswald University. Prof. Dr. Jürgen Schiewe is the director of the Department of German Philology in Greifswald. Together they are involved in an interdisciplinary project about the concept of trust.
Trust and cooperation
Prof. Bornewasser explains his approaches like this: “In the long run, I want to find out about the actual relationship of trust and cooperation.” The problems within the research process concerning trust emerge with the use of the following terms: risk, control, trust, and cooperation. They are essential to the understanding of trust. “Trust would be a presupposition for taking a risk and I would expect for my partner, whom I am not in control of, to stand up to his or her promise, which in turn minimizes my risk”, Prof. Bornewasser summarizes his supposition.
Research in the field of psychology tries to rule out everything that could possibly disturb actual goal-oriented cooperation, e.g. communication. The prisoner’s dilemma reflects the best approach to find out if trust is necessary for cooperation. In short, the prisoner’s dilemma describes a situation where two people have to make decisions, without knowing how the respective other will decide. The interesting part here is the point where one has to decide to cooperate or to defect. “I think trust is something like giving a person a credit”, Prof. Bornewasser comments the assumptions and he goes on by saying that “the more experience in successful cooperation you have, the more likely it is that you will start to cooperate another time.” So in the end successful cooperation fosters trust.
Asked about the relation of trust and confidence, he replies: “I have to rely on stressable conditions within a social context. This means that something like social control has to exist.” But this is something a person can hardly influence, plus it is not the actual concern. “To me trust is something like a psychological variable that mediates between the obvious risk of cooperation and the knowledge within a situation of cooperation,” Prof. Bornewasser finalizes “in the end there is always the question of the willingness to take a higher risk on the basis of my experiences with a specific person.”
Trust and communication
In contrast to that, Prof. Schiewe (left) has another approach to the issue. For him, trust is manifest in communication. Because trust is limited to individuals, it can only be given and restrained by individuals. Therefore, the degree of trust or distrust should be visible in linguistic and paralinguistic signs. “Trust affects communication, or has some influence on communication and communicative action”, he states. In his opinion, communication is not even possible without trust. Therefore the task has to be to find out how trust is shown and applied in daily life. “To achieve this, I want to observe actual communication between people”, Prof. Schiewe describes his attempts “one possibility is to observe topic-related communication to find out more about trust.”
Asked about where trust is necessary, he replies with this example: “Let’s say, I work together with a member of a certain institution because I have to. This is not necessarily cooperation based on trust. But as trust develops, the willingness to alter one’s behavior is likely to change towards doing something extra or helping other people with their work. Therefore, I would say that cooperation based on trust is an advanced form of cooperation.”
So we see once again that trust improves human relations. However, in the context of the relation of trust and confidence Prof. Schiewe has a very clear position. Though individuals are able to develop something like ‘systematic’ trust, it is always the individual, which communicates trust. “Representatives of systems communicate with each other and their communicative behavior in turn has impacts on the system”, he elaborates. “Trust only applies to individuals, even if a person appears as an agent of a certain institution.”
It seems that also in science there are serious differences in approaching the issue. On the one hand it is possible to ask if trust is necessary at all, like Prof. Bornewasser does. On the other hand, according to Prof. Schiewe, one can also start with the prediction that trust is already existent, so it has only to be found. Nevertheless both scientists are down to the fact that trust has something to do with giving credit to somebody and to get something back in return later. Essential in this respect are the binding promises by persons who are interacting and their experiences in cooperation.
It is certain that trust is an important factor in human relations, and despite the above-mentioned differences both approaches have a lot in common. “We reached a point where we can probably say that cooperation does hardly work without any communication”, Prof. Bornewasser remarks, and Prof. Schiewe amends “often, cooperation is equal to communication.” These assumptions give the entire concept a whole new quality, hence it indicates that interdisciplinary cooperation between the two fields of philology and psychology could be very fruitful in the future.
Trust and confidence revised
However, there is still an important fact we have to take into account, also in respect to the current debate of trust in democracy. As we predicted before, an individual can develop something like trust in societal systems and we may call this confidence. But obviously confidence applies only to abstract phenomena. Nevertheless it exists somehow alongside trust. Assuming that confidence seems to follow a different pattern, yet to be discovered, two questions remain: is there a dependency between trust and confidence? How do we apply trust in actual cooperation? We will try to answer those questions in the last part of the series where we follow the actual application of trust.
Read also the first part: Trust – Does it matter? and last part of the series: Trust – A concept for the future.
The University of Greifswald holds the copyright of the pictures.
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