On Psychology of Trust

Philosophy of Security, Part 3 – On psychology of trust.

In part 1 and part 2 of this series, I have looked at, in very general terms what security is about and why we bear the costs associated with it.

It has occurred to me that before we can move onto discussion of risk management and moving on to the more practical advice in terms of  risk management strategies,  information security strategies or tools and techniques, we need to consider the psychology of trust and psychology safety. This is  because perceptions of trust are vital in understanding risk-based decisions.

This article deals with the concept of trust.

Trust relationships.

Any trust relationship is,  at the very core, a relationship between:

  • the trusting individual, organisation or a social group party  – the trustor
  • the trusted individual, organisation or a social group – the trustee

It is a relationship which implies that:

  • there is  willingness on the part of the the trustor to be vulnerable in some way; and
  • that the trustor holds some form of  positive expectations of the the trustee.

It is important to note that in many ways the level of trust placed by the trustor in the trustee is a measure of their belief in the benevolence, also expressed as a belief in fairness and honesty, the ability or competence and the integrity, or congruence and consistency of behaviour, of the trustee.

What factors influence trust.

The research in this are shows that that the factors that influence trust are influence trust are groups into three broad categories, which are generally called ability, benevolence and integrity.

As a trust factor ability, also referred to as “competence” is the measure of what the trustor thinks and believes is the trustee’s ability to act in a certain way.  Ability as a factor tends to be focused on how reliable,   knowledgeable and responsible the trustee is.  Ability is therefore most commonly associated with thought an belief (also called ‘cognition-based’) trust decisions.

Benevolence is focused on the emotional bond between the trustor and the trustee. It is created by the feeling created by expressions of genuine care and regard for each other’s welfare, and implies a sense of empathy, rapport and union. As such benevolence is most commonly associated with  an emotionally based (also called  ‘affect-based’ ) trust decisions.

Integrity is a mixture of thought/belief and emotion based trust and revolves around how the trustor perceives the actions of the trustee in terms of ethical and moral values and principles, such as honesty or behaviour that is congruent with stated goals and values. The perception of the integrity of the trustee can influence both the emotional and thought-belief based trust decisions made by the trustor.

Types of trust relationships and importance of factors

The type of trust relationship will determine which factors play a greater role:

  • In case of  a downward trust judgement, such as a relationship between employer with an employee, the largest relative weight is placed on the employees ability and integrity.
  • In case of upward trust judgement such as relationships such a an individual and a commercial organisation or an employee and an employer the greatest weight is placed on benevolence and integrity of the trustee.
  • In peer to peer relationships all three factors appears to play equally important role.

There exists a a kind of a trust relationship called  “confidence“. This type of trust relations most often appears in commercial relationships, where confidence is most commonly grounded in the beliefs in the ability and track record  of  the other party. In these types of relationships  contractual arrangements replace the need to consider the feelings or beliefs  about benevolence and integrity.

Other factors that influence trust judgements.

  • Worldview ­ and attitudes – personal, political and cultural values.
  • Infrastructure  – ­ social and economic infrastructure.
  • Social norms – people look at the behaviour of those around them to guide their own actions.
  • Autonomy ­  – the level of choice an individual feels hey have.
  • Priorities ­  – an individual may need to focus on different concerns in their life (e.g. financial worries).
  • Perceived costs and benefits of a transaction.

As an interesting side note, some research shows that in general a failure or a breach of a trust relationship is much less damaging and more easily repaired and/or forgiven if it is perceived as a  failure of ability or competence, rather than a breach of integrity or benevolence. Why that might be is beyond the scope

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