What Is Trust?

In my university admissions examination in 2009, I was asked whether I thought trust was the foundation of human society. My answer was yes, and my reasoning was that it is a necessary – though not sufficient – condition for relationships and economic transactions.

Looking back, I realise that my answer was fundamentally flawed. I argued for the importance of trust, but did not define it.

So, what is trust?

The online dictionary website Merriam Webster has a number of entries, which you can peruse here. But the key words are “reliance”, “confidence”, and “commitment”.

What does trust mean in the world of economic transactions? It is the belief – the “confidence” – that the promise of economic compensation will be honoured, which implies “reliance” on the integrity of the economic person with whom you are carrying out your transaction and “commitment” from both parties.

The clearest example is of online purchases. You buy from websites you trust, because you believe that the website will not take your money and disappear, that the goods you ordered will be delivered, and in good time. When you hesitate to buy from websites you haven’t heard of for fear of being scammed, it is because you do not trust them.

Trust in human relationships, I find, is more complex. And this is what I want to focus on.

I think in this instance, a negative definition is more intuitive, so let’s start by asking this question: “What does it mean to not trust someone?”

When you do not trust someone, what do you do or, more importantly, not do?

In my case, when I don’t trust someone, I don’t allocate them my time unless necessary. I could spend time with them, but I don’t offer to. I don’t connect with them at a deeper level, share my inner thoughts and feelings – especially insecurities – or plans. I may give them a glimpse here and there, but not enough for them to really know me.

Granted, these are the answers of only one person, but it’s a start. So what do they tell us? What does the refusal to give time and access to private information mean?

Access to information is the easier one to analyse. On the first level, I think we don’t “trust” them with information because we are afraid that it will be abused. That it will be shared without permission or used to psychologically or materially injure.

On a deeper level, the sharing of information implies intimacy. And I think we are uncomfortable with the idea of being intimate with someone we don’t trust. Why that is merits a treatment on its own, a subject for another time.

What about the refusal to give our time of day? Why do we shy away from spending time with someone we don’t trust? For me, it has everything to do with the quality of my time. I am not comfortable around people I don’t trust, and therefore the quality of the time I spend with them is lower than that of the time I spend with myself and people I trust. Since my time is a limited and precious resource, I choose not to spend it in their company.

What you choose to or not to do with those you don’t trust may or may not differ from the above, and therefore our definitions of trust are likely to be different. To a certain extent though, these should overlap and my above analysis should give you some insight into your thoughts and feelings on the matter.

So, this is my take on trust. It is by no means exhaustive and much more can be said. I shall continue to mull over the subject and share with you what I find in the recesses of my mind.

I hope you find this entry stimulating in some ways. I’d love to hear what you think, so please comment away below!

Thank you for reading,


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