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Did you know that … we generally trust others in our everyday life, but that how much we trust varies strongly across contexts?

October 2020

Trust, as the propensity to accept risk based upon positive expectations of the intentions of others, is the glue that brings a keeps social relationships together. But what determines whether we trust someone? Do we always trust to the same extent across various situations? Who are the people that we trust the most or the least? And do findings from laboratory studies replicate when we observe trust in everyday life?

ISS researcher Corinna Michels and her colleagues addressed these questions in a recently published study. Using the so-called experience sampling method, the authors studied previously separately tested effects outside the lab: Participants were contacted via smartphone five times per day for five days in a row to answer short questionnaires studying their most recent social interaction.

Across more than 4,500 interactions covered in the study, the authors found that individuals trust others more than they distrust them. The data shows that trust and distrust can be described as two endpoints of the same continuum rather than separate dimensions. Although there is a general tendency to trust, the results also indicate considerable variability in trust across contexts. This variation is based on three key factors. First, trust depends on the trustor’s tendency to trust in general, though this factor showed to explain the lowest percentage of variability. Second, and more relevant in explaining variation in trust, situational factors strongly determine the level of trust. These factors comprise, for one, the characteristics of the person to be trusted—such as warmth, competence and morality—and for another, aspects of the trustor–trustee relationship—such as psychological closeness, conflict of interests, information uncertainty and power imbalance. Combining these different perspectives, this study is one of the first integrative studies that captures different factors influencing the level of trust simultaneously and in a real-life environment.

Generally speaking, we trust others. However, how much we trust, depends strongly on us, our perception of and our relationship with the other person.