#17 Betting On Trust


Trust is a permeating and pervasive feature of relationships that often enters into conflict dynamics. I frequently hear from my mediation clients, “I don’t trust him.” What do they mean?

In his important new book, The Truth about Trust, David DeSteno takes an adaptive perspective on trust. He says we trust because it is advantageous to do so. Although there is something missing for me in his ideas, I also find them compelling and useful. He suggests that my clients may be losing out if they don’t trust.

DeSteno points out that trust can be viewed as a bet about the future. When we trust, we bet that in some way the other will act in our interests, even if it is not in their interests. We trust that a contractor will bill us fairly, even though it may be in her interests to inflate charges. We trust that the dentist we go to will have the knowledge to make the best decision about a troublesome tooth, even though he may gain financially if we follow his advice. We trust that a new employee will apply himself and not spend too much time on personal issues during work hours. Many people trust their spouses to keep each other at the centre of their lives.

In every case, trust includes a view of the future. In every case, we have something to gain by trusting. It is too time consuming to track the contractor’s activity so we save time by trusting in her fairness. Even if the dentist stands to gain, he has knowledge we don’t have any interest in acquiring, so we trust his professional judgment. We can’t possibly plumb the depths of every person we hire, so we trust that our new hire will act with integrity until he shows us otherwise. Life is simpler in the present assuming that our spouses will stay with us, so many of us live and love trusting that they will.

Trust is like a bet because we don't know the future and there is a risk of things not working out.

Trust is like a bet because we don’t know the future and there is a risk of things not working out.

Trust is like a bet because we don’t know the future and there is a risk of things not working out. We take the risk because the pay off of relying on the other person is likely to be better than not risking. If we refused to trust at all, we could not retain a contractor, go to a dentist, have employees, or live with a spouse. Trusting is about relying when there is risk. The greater the risk, the more we have to rely, the more we have to bet, and the more we have to trust.

When my clients say that they don’t trust someone else, what will they not rely on? I think trust involves relying on a conglomerate of things. Dissecting those different things and clarifying what one needs to rely on, or what is wise to rely on, can be helpful. At different times we mean quite different things when we say, “I don’t trust her.” We mean different things because what we are relying on can be quite different.

The dissection of trust can be made by thinking of it as having different faces. By faces I means different ways that it presents itself to us, and ways we can make use of it. There are probably other faces, but I have identified five faces of trust:






If trust is a bet, it is good to learn how to beat the odds. I think there is too much focus on whether to trust or not, and not enough focus on how to go about trusting in various situations. The faces of trust help illuminate different ways of trusting. I will write about them in the next few issues of The Conflict Journey.

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2 Responses to #17 Betting On Trust

  1. Steve says:

    IMO….Trust without faith in life is always going to be a little iffy. The more you love someone, and the more you have entrusted your life to this person, the more you are vulnerable to the person. Without faith in life, faith that life has some sort of guiding intelligence and direction, trying to trust another in the way love demands might be impossible. It might even be the more you love, the less you trust. If life can actually get worse, if there is no guiding intelligence, then every action of the beloved has to be weighed by the lover. If you can basically, generally trust life, and trust this too will work out, whatever it is, then you can trust someone knowing even if he or she fails you, life won’t.

    Another more practical way of saying this is inevitably you will occasionally let someone down. It is impossible in a world of slightly off communication and non transparent needs that you will betray someone’s trust in you, at least once in awhile. And, they will with you, on occasion. Inevitably you will be drawn to the conclusion no individual person can be 100% trusted. Despite this, even in the circumstances where someone let you down, inadvertently or not, it always works out. If you observe this enough times, the trust starts to be put more and more on life, and not on an individual. I think that is the beginning of actual trust…..again….IMO.

    • Gordon White says:

      Hi Steve,

      Thank you for taking the time to reply. In line with your views, Gottman’s research has shown that healthy marital relationships include positive sentiment override – the practice of assuming good intentions when the partner’s actions are unproductive or even hurtful. I read something by Guy Kawasaki who was an Apple Corp. marketer. He wrote that good people do things that he can’t understand. In his world someone had to step out of line three times before they came on to his concern list. Real generosity of spirit, I think, that is also likely based on the kind of faith in life that you write about.
      Best wishes,

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