At a time when trust — in institutions, political leaders, even neighbors and relatives — is waning, Iris Vilares is charging ahead to find out how to mend what is broken. Vilares has long been fascinated by social relationships, and she believes that at the core of all of them is trust. Or lack thereof. The neuroscientist, working in the University of Minnesota department of psychology, has turned trust into a robust body of research sought out by economists, psychologists, even marketers. Now mother to a 22-month-old daughter, Vilares is keenly aware of the importance of building trust with her. She spoke recently to the Maple Grove Critical Thinkers Club and graciously answered follow-up questions below.
Q: How do you define trust?
A: A positive expectation in the face of social uncertainty. According to research by Mayer and colleagues, it is a willingness to be vulnerable to the actions of another party based on the expectation that the other will perform a particular action important to us, irrespective of the ability to monitor or control that other party.
Q: When do we first learn to trust? And mistrust?
A: We first learn to trust based on our interactions with our primary caregiver(s) while we are still babies. Learning that some people are not trustworthy can be very quick; sometimes one failed interaction is enough! But we have to be careful to not overgeneralize, and give people the benefit of the doubt.
Q: How might fellow researchers use your findings on trust?
A: These are people generally from fields such as economics, psychology, neuroscience and even marketing. Research in trust can have several applications, from the clinical side (in disorders such as borderline personality disorder), to labor relationships (should one constantly monitor our employees or is that a sign of distrust that will make them work less?), to marriage counseling. I hope that my research will one day directly help with these issues.
Q: Why is it important to trust?
A: Studies consistently find that having social connections, and in particular high-quality social relationships where people feel supported and connected, is associated with higher life satisfaction, increased well-being and lower mortality. One of the main ingredients in having these social relationships is trust. You need some degree of trust to even start most relationships, be it a romantic, friendship or family relationship. At a country level, data from the World Development Survey and the "Our World in Data" indicate a positive correlation between the proportion of people agreeing with the statement that most people can be trusted and that country's gross domestic product (GDP). In addition, higher trust levels are also associated with less violence, and greater political stability and accountability.
Q: In terms of institutions, who do we tend to trust the most?
A: A 2019 Pew Research study looked at exactly this. They found that the older a person is, the more likely they are to trust. In terms of whom people trust, the study suggests that people tend to put more trust in scientists and the military.
Q: Conversely, what institutions struggle to gain trust?
A: In both the U.S. and abroad, people seem to trust politicians very little. In the Pew study, while more than 80% of people believe that scientists will act in the best interests of the public, less than 50% believe that in relation to elected officials. Business leaders are also, in general, not as trusted, although still more so than elected officials.
Q: How does the media inform — or misinform — our sense of who we can and cannot trust?
A: The media has a very important role in shaping overall perceptions of trust. First, we learn about who to trust not only from personal experience but also from hearing the experiences of others; if the media we watch is constantly telling us to trust or not trust a particular individual or institution, we will be more likely to do so. Also, if the media constantly portrays people from a certain group or with certain characteristics to be untrustworthy, we may start to believe that all people from that group are untrustworthy, which is obviously not the case.
Q: What are some ways trust is chipped away?
A: The obvious one is when people or institutions do not honor the trust deposited in them and act in self-interested ways that harm us. However, it is worth noting that we are all human and that temptation exists, or even just mistakes can be made. Being able to re-establish the trust, and actively make efforts to mend the broken trust ("coaxing," as some researchers call it), can prevent trust from fully breaking.
Q: What might "coaxing" look like?
A: At a personal level, it's being able to actually interact with one another and try to understand the reasons for the other's behavior. Most people are not untrustworthy out of malice. It's making amends and efforts if we were the one breaking the trust. It's better communication. It is normal for people to sometimes do something that we don't like (and vice versa). Learning to mend what is broken and to forgive can go a long way! At a country level, research suggests a positive correlation between education levels and trust, and a negative correlation between trust and income inequality. So a good start would be to try to decrease income inequality and increase access to education for all.