Be careful about who you can trust

It is often said that trust needs to be earned, and that implies that we start off not trusting people until they reach the point when they have done enough to convince us that they are trustworthy. But is it really that simple?

How realistic is it to withhold trust until we feel that the risk of having that trust abused is at a low enough level? Of course, it isn’t realistic at all. To a certain extent social interactions would not be possible if we did not begin with at least a degree of basic trust. Imagine totally mistrusting everyone we encounter unless and until they have done enough to convince us that they can be trusted. That would surely make life extremely difficult all round. So, we need to have a certain amount of trust as the basis of our society.

But does that mean that we should just abandon ourselves to trusting all people all of the time? Of course not. That would be a potential recipe for disaster. Unscrupulous people would have a field day in exploiting others if we automatically trusted everyone in all circumstances. There’s also unreliable people, those who don’t intend to exploit us, but who cause us problems because they do not deliver – they either have no compunction in letting us down or they are in some way incapable of making sure they do what they have promised to do. In all of these situations we would be unwise to trust people unconditionally.

So, how do we handle this? Well, to my mind, there are (at least) two sets of issues to consider: degrees of trust and circumstances of trusting. Let’s consider each in turn.

The question of ‘degrees of trust’ is basically a matter of how far you are prepared to be trusting in a particular situation. For example, while certain retail outlets may trust customers to pay for their newspaper by putting the correct amount in the ‘honesty box’ provided, I can’t imagine a car dealership ever allowing people to pay for their new car in that way. To what extent we are prepared to trust will depend on a number of factors. It can be very helpful to be clear about what those factors are before making a decision about trust – especially in those situations where the stakes are high.

Then there are the circumstances of trust to be considered. One obvious aspect of this is somebody’s track record. Have they proven trustworthy in the past? But that’s not the only factor to consider. If you are concerned about whether you can trust someone to do something as agreed, how much evidence is there that they have the ability, resources and commitment to deliver? How serious would the consequences be if they did not deliver? These and other situational factors can be important considerations. Assessing the circumstantial factors involved won’t give us a fool-proof way of managing trust-related risk issues, but it will give us a much stronger and safer basis than just relying on gut feelings or putting everything down to chance.

Finally, then, how do we know who to trust and who not to? The short answer is that we don’t. Each episode of trusting someone is a risk, a gamble. There is no guarantee that we will get it right. Sometimes we will not trust someone when there was nothing to be concerned about and perhaps a good opportunity will have passed us by. Then there will be times when we trust people and later regret it, having had our fingers burned. What we need, then, is the same as what we need in relation to any risk issues: a balanced approach. Complete, unconditional trust will leave us vulnerable, whereas minimising trust will narrow our horizons considerably. A balanced approach means avoiding these two extremes and that means weighing up degrees of trust and the circumstances of trusting.