Once I wrote in a blog: “Trust is relying on the reliability of another, for example that she or he will do what s/he says, without having any explicit guarantee that the other will really carry out what s/he is expected to do.” Of course, there are many rules and regulations in society that prescribe what to do or not to do in certain situations and that can and will be enforced when they are broken. Nevertheless we need trust, for in practice not all rules and regulations are enforced or the enforcement is so complicated that it is better to avoid it. Moreover, not everything can be regulated. So, in order to make that social and individual relations go smoothly we need trust. From that perspective trust is the lubricant for society.
The basis of trust is often quite vague. Usually it is not more than trustworthy behaviour in the past by the person you trust; his or her “trustworthy” appearance; sweet-talk or a good story that someone tells you in order to convince you of his trustworthiness; and so on. In fact, trust rests on trust till the opposite has become clear. In old films it is so simple: scoundrels look like scoundrels and good guys or girls look like good guys or girls and they behave that way. But, alas, reality is not that simple, although many people (unconsciously) think so as psychological tests show: Being a good-looking person is an asset in order to get things done, for being good-looking and being considered trustworthy are things that tend to go together.
Several factors can undermine trust. So the more rules and regulations there are in social life the less trust there is. The reason is that they subvert intrinsic motivation and make people calculating, often at the cost of others. Another trust undermining factor is – it’s clear – known untrustworthy behaviour in the past, like not keeping one’s appointments. A third factor is not correcting mistakes when others are involved especially if the person who made the mistake acknowledges having made the mistake. A fourth trust undermining factor I want to mention is money: Also when money is involved in executing an agreement or a promise, people tend to become more calculating. Money put relations on a business footing and then people behave accordingly.
And there is corruption. Not only is it so that corruption makes that relations become a matter of tit-for-tat or that it can lead to clientelism. It leads also to exclusion of individuals and groups from social favours or things they need in case they do not have the money for paying bribes or do not have the relations needed for getting things done. Corruption leads to social inequality and in the worst case to violence as well. That’s why already Montaigne protested against the corruption he saw around him. But since corruption cannot be practised openly, corrupt people try to prevent that they are exposed as corrupt, often by corrupt means, or, if they are politicians, by moulding the law to their will and by limiting the freedom of the press or the freedom of demonstration. Just these days again, we see this in Turkey by the arrest of journalists or in Spain, where the government wants to make stricter laws for demonstrations (just now that the governing Partido Popular – “People’s Party”– is involved in so many corruption affairs).These are only some factors that undermine trust, for there are many more. Trust looks often like a concept escaped from a fairy tale. Isn’t it so that in the end nobody can be trusted and that, in the end, we have to behave as if it doesn’t exist? That human relationships are actually not more than a kind of business? Maybe they are, but when thinking of trust and untrustworthiness, the words of Francis Bacon (1561-1626) certainly apply that “Multis minatur, qui uni facit injuriam”, or in English: “He that injures one threatens many”. Untrustworthiness destabilizes society. Judge yourself and take a look at this website, for instance, where the 2014 Corruption Perception Index is presented: http://www.transparency.org/cpi2014/results .