Proceed to Safety

Gaining Trust  

Trust is a complex phenomenon, the product of many types of human interaction and behaviour, including commitment, confidence, dedication, and ownership.


Levels of Trust

    Physical Trust

    Emotional Trust

    Mental, Intellectual and Speech Trust

        Modeling, Empathy and Listening

Trust and Money

Trust Strategies

    The Prisoner's Dilemna

Levels of Trust

Trust exists in different forms, usually occuring together in combination. The most useful distinction, used extensively here, classifies trust according to the levels of reality.

Physical Trust

Physical trust is a very primitive type of trust that is established (or broken) through non-verbal communication. It is a prerequisite to the other types of trust established later.

Once physical trust is established, certain types of non-verbal help can be given and these will help to build physical trust.

To give a simple example, suppose we have established enough physical trust to be near each other, and then decide to walk together over rough terrain. I stumble and fall. You reach out your hand; if I trust you to help me I take your hand; then you help pull me up, and once I have regained balance you let go. If this is completed as described a little trust is built, and if you let go too early it will reduce the amount of trust. Repeated incidents of this type can cause the trust level to go up and/or down over time.

Dilbert shouldn't have (mentally) ''trusted'' that his boss would fall backwards.
Misplaced Physical Trust

There are much deeper, more profound emotional types of help that can be given based only on physical trust, including most notably group catharsis.

Emotional Trust

Emotional trust exists when the individual can act without worrying about emotional harm from others. "Emotional harm" just means any bad feelings — anger, fear, guilt, remorse, etc.

Mental, Intellectual and Speech Trust

Almost all of the other types of trust issues in human relationships involve verbal communication and mental state. There are several different types of interactions that affect each other in complex ways. One of the most basic is the listening interaction.

Modeling, Empathy and Listening

The listening interaction depends on modeling on the part of the speaker and perception of empathy in the listener; and corresponding states in their reversed roles. In its most basic form (as it occurs for children, for example) the listening interaction is initiated out of a person's interest in self, and bargaining for help from others.

Person A has some type of problem for which they believe they might be able to get help from B. In order to get help effectively, B must

Before help can happen, each of these must be true, and A will need to be convinced of each of these before telling about their problem.

The third requirement is crucial because it relates to listening: B must know or understand what A's problem is, and A must believe that B knows or understands A's problem. The first depends on B's empathy and the second on A's modeling.

To make it simpler we'll assume that the problem is of a nature that can only be communicated through words, although the same principles apply to anything that can be communicated, whether verbal or not.

Once A states the problem, B can understand or not. If B understands, B has empathy.

A is watching B and modeling B's mental state. A is aware that communication is not always successful and will not assume B's mental state has changed until some outward sign is evident.

In order for A to understand that B understands A's problem, A must hear something from B that makes it clear that B has assimilated the knowledge.

Trust and Money

Here I present examples of the three levels of trust as they relate to money.

To understand this section it is important first to understand that "money" exists in several different levels of abstraction. The simplest type of money is barter or commodity exchange — for example, trading grain for eggs. The next type is currency, by which I mean anything physical and unique enough to be difficult to counterfeit, such as gold or printed notes. More abstract types of money include legal instruments such as credit accounts, mutual funds and debt-backed securities.

Intellectual Trust Issues
Intellectual Trust Issues
(For another similar example see this strip)

Complex Products

In addition there is the concept of simple and complex products. A simple product is something one person can create themselves. An ancient example is wool. A complex product requires the skills of many different people, most of whom never meet each other. A modern example of this is a cellular phone.

Of course, all real products fall somewhere on a spectrum between simple and complex. One can say that the more people and skills are involved, the more complex a product is.

The principle also applies to things that are not physical "products" in the literal sense of the word — what are normally called services. In other words, I am using product to refer to resources, goods, services, labour, any combination of these and anything else that can be exchanged for money or for other products.

Physical Trust and Money

When physical trust is present, the individuals conducting the transaction are confident that they will not come to physical harm (being injured or killed).

Emotional Trust and Money

When emotional trust is present, the individuals are confident they will feel better after the transaction. When emotional trust is present there is no risk of buyer's remorse.

Intellectual Trust and Money

When intellectual trust is present, the parties are confident that neither will default on the legal agreement. For example, a mutual funds investor has intellectual trust when they are confident that the finds manager will not take their money and disappear to an island in Switzerland1.

Types of Money and Types of Trust

Now consider which types of trust are required for each type of money as defined above.

For a barter exchange, the only type of trust that is needed is physical trust. As long as the individuals are not worried about being attacked, or that the merchandise might be poisoned and booby-trapped, a barter exchange is reliable because it is quick and direct. The exchange can be set up and executed quickly, and once the exchange is done, the parties can walk away and never see each other again.

In a cash exchange, the thing being exchanged is typically more abstract, such as labour or a service to be rendered later. It can take a while before the expectations of both parties are satisfied, and therefore there is more risk of disappointment.

Also, cash is usually used for more complex products (see definition above) because of the way these products depend on many people who do not interact directly. Because of the indirect network of people involved in production, these type of products usually need to be produced and exchanged for cash or a more abstract form of money. The complexity of the product itself offers greater potential for emotional let-down (buyer's remorse) and therefore presents a higher requirement for emotional trust.

Similarly, complex products offer greater risk of intellectial risk (trickery, deception) such as buying a fake iPhone from a shady gray-market dealer and later discovering that it won't work on your carrier's network.

In an exchange involving legal instruments (like mutual funds, stocks, etc.) there are clearly lots of intellectual risks (risks of trickery, manipulation through use or misuse of information, deception, etc.) The Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme is a prominent recent example in which people had to have intellectual trust, and this trust was misplaced.

Trust Strategies

This section concerns interactions over time that result in trust being built up and/or broken down.

Example: Listening or Not Listening

As just described, the barriers to listening are numerous and result from a fundamental self-preservation strategy developed to avoid betrayal. The strategy is implemented more aggressively by those who have a greater history of betrayal, or who have greater experience of others around them being betrayed.

Some people will listen right away, and no special consideration is required. However it is more common that a barrier to listening must be overcome. In the most common cases, party A refuses to listen until party B demonstrates that they will listen. This is simple tit-for-tat. In more severe cases, A refuses to agree with anything new presented by B, until convinced that B has changed his mind in response to some influence from A. This is called initial withholder. In the most extreme cases A continues the nonlistening behavior even after a long time of influencing B; I call this an aggressive withholder.

Tit-for-tat: The most common pattern seen in most people is to listen or not listen, based on what the other person has done recently. If you have been listening to me, I'll listen to you, and if you stop listening, I'll stop listening, but if you start again I'll start again.

Although it manifests itself as part of the strategy outlined above for establishing trust, it can also be the result of mind-clearing, an unintentional and unavoidable effect. Imagine that you and I are talking. You have something to say, that I do not yet know. You start by telling me, and you look for evidence that I understand what you said. Until you understand that I have heard what you said, your point is still "on the table" — it cannot be put aside and you cannot move on to another thought until you're done making sure I understand this thought. Then you can move on to listening to my response, or saying the next thing you want to say. As a result — if I am not listening, you will have trouble listening because your thing is still occupying your mind.

The initial withholder is an intermediate case distinguished from ordinary tit-for-tat behaviour is the need for demonstrated contribution to the other party, as described above: If A is the initial withholder, A refuses to agree with anything new presented by B, until convinced that B has changed his mind in response to some influence from A. In addition, the initial withholder might show some of the signs of the aggressive withholder.

The aggressive withholder approaches complete closed-mindedness; he is identified by at least two of the following characteristics:

However, when diagnosing the above, one must be aware that these symptoms can also be caused by any of the following: In order to distinguish these, one must observe over a period of many conversations extending over at least a few weeks, using the strategies for tat-for-tit (see below) if necessary during the interim.

The Prisoner's Dilemna

The prisoner's dilemna is an example of two-person interaction which demonstrates the results of different trust strategies.

As initially presented, it is a one-time encounter %%%

The encounter just described is repeated multiple times between the same two people. %%%

Prisoner's Dilemna Strategies

Tit-for-tat: Cooperate the first time, then execute tit-for-tat
Tat-for-tit (Initial Withholder): Defect first time, then execute standard tit-for-tat


(section not written yet)

Request For Comments: This is a big topic, and I suspect I have left out some important points of view. Please help me improve it.

See also my page on gay men


1 : An island in Switzerland : Yes, there are islands in Switzerland, and if someone had paid Bernie Madoff enough, I'm sure he would have been able to convince someone to sell him one.

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