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How People Trust


Explanations > Trust > How People Trust

Similarity | Concern | Reliability


When we meet and need to interact with someone else, how do we decide whether our requests will be taken seriously? How do we decide whether this person can or cannot be trusted?


A simple fact of interpersonal relationships is that we assume that if people are like us, then they will both think and act in the same way as us. This allows us to predict how they will behave, including how trustworthy they are. Similarity allows us to transfer our beliefs about ourselves to the other person. I’m a nice person and they are like me, then they must be nice too. And as I am trustworthy, so also must they be trustworthy.

We thus seek signs of similarity, both in their internal beliefs, etc. and in the external signs and behaviours through which they demonstrate what they are really like.

Internal factors

The way we think and understand the world determines how we act. If I can ‘get inside your head’, then I can better understand your real intent and whether I can trust you.

  • Beliefs are mental underpinnings to everything we do. They are assumed truths on which we base many decisions. If we believe that people are, in general, good and do not seek to deceive others, then we are more likely to trust them.
  • Values are the rules that tell us what is right and wrong, what we should and should not do, what is more important and less important. They often are concerned with how we behave in relationships with other people. Agilent’s company values include trust as a rule which says ‘trust the other people in the company, and act in a trustworthy manner’.
  • Mental models are the complex maps we make of the world and which we then use to interpret what is going on around us. They help us predict what will happen and hence keep control of our personal world. We have mental models of how we and others work in
  • Goals are the targets we set ourselves to achieve, based on our models of both the world and ourselves, and hence what we believe is possible to achieve. If my goals and yours are the same, then it is easier to trust that you will act to help me, because it is in your interests too.

External factors

  • Appearances: When people have the same outer accoutrements of living as us, from cars to clothes, we tend to translate this outer appearance into an assumption that the inner beliefs, etc. are also similar.
  • Behaviours: We can easily observe how the other person acts, perhaps in situations which do not require significant trust to be given. From both direct experience and from what other people tell us about them, we can build up a picture and judge from this how much we have in common.
  • Experiences: Where we have had common experiences, from working together on the same project to going to the same university in different decades, having an experience in common is likely to make us feel some sense of camaraderie, enabling at least a first level of comfortable conversation.
  • Preferences: When the other person prefers the same music as us and has the same biases, whether it be religious, political or otherwise, we feel more like them and consequently believe that they are more like us.

Contextual factors

  • Culture: Cultural contexts include being at work, being at home and being on the golf course. In each situation, there are different cultural rules about trust.
  • Group: If we are in a similar group, such as the same department, same family or same profession, then this says ‘we are similar’ and we will automatically trust more.


We can evaluate how people will treat our vulnerabilities by evaluating the concern they show, both for other people and for ourselves.


Someone who clearly cares for us, taking positive steps to help and offering emotional support as needed, is someone we will quickly conclude that we can trust. Caring is often an emotional attribute, but it can also be logical, such as when I know that to be accepted within a group, I must be civil and civilised in my dealings with the other people.


Where the other person has power to hurt us, but does not, then we may conclude that they are trustworthy. Types of power include positional power (eg management), charisma/social leadership, expertise/knowledge. Thus, for example, if I am buying a car from you and you tell me what the problems are,


We can judge a person’s trustworthiness by how reliable they are, which translates into how easily we can predict what they do. This may also include a person who we disagree and who may harm us: it is often better to trust a person to be unkind or unhelpful than face the uncertainty of whether or not they will be in a good mood today.


We can check their fairness in exchanges by determining the overall value balance. Do they give a little and expect a lot? Are neutral or biased standards used to decide what is fair? Do they conveniently ‘forget’ the help you gave them last month?

A trustworthy person will, over time, give and take on an approximately equal basis. This can be difficult to determine, for example where someone is giving physical help and receiving gratitude (and is quite happy with this. In the end the best way of judging fairness is whether all parties feel good about the exchange.


A person of integrity sticks to their values through thick and thin, even when it is apparent that they could gain at least a short-term advantage from ‘bending the rules’. This makes them very predictable and their words and actions can be trusted, even when we largely disagree with them.

It is worth noting here that in many studies of leaders, a key attribute of leadership is unswerving integrity. Especially when you are leading a company into uncharted waters, you need a high level of trust to be placed in you by your followers.


We also trust others when we have to. There is a practicality of working with people that you do not have time to check up on everyone, so you just have to trust them. The same effect happens in social situations. You cannot function if you assume everyone around you is a threat to you.

Emotional and practical trust

This does not mean that people will be comfortable trusting others, even when they need to do so. This highlights two different types of trust: emotional trust and practical trust. Emotional trust is affected by the factors above, where the sense of trust is deeply felt and is based on an assessment of the trustworthiness of the other person. Practical trust is based on necessity and has limited emotional comfort factor.

Experience effect

When you have to trust people, then experience will have a mitigating effect on how cautious you are in this. If you have been betrayed often and have effectively learned that others are not to be trusted, then you will suffer from significant anxiety when you have to place practical trust in others.


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