What do Stanford say about trust?

These are summary notes and observations from reviewing the philosophical considerations of what trust is, in one of the best free resources of academic thought I have found. In summarising this encyclopaedia entry (link here and below), there is positive confirmation that visibility | behaviour | trust (v | b | t) reflects other conclusions of interactions between these three variables I am attempting to integrate into project assessment. However, it also presents some rather tricky obstacles if trust is to be a meaningful assessment criteria aimed toward measuring likelihood of project success.

This single entry in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (SEP) is around 15,000 words. It comes immediately to the point by presenting trust in terms of risk. Next is an exploration of what conditions are required to enable trust. Comparison is also made to trustworthiness, which is reflected upon as a property, not an attitude as is required to have trust. For a trusted relationship to exist, both parties are required to have the property of trustworthiness.

One ongoing challenge I have set myself is testing through examples that visibility, behaviour and trust are functional parts of a whole. This encyclopaedia entry presents a connection to all three…

“The trustor might try to reduce this risk by monitoring or imposing certain constraints on the behaviour of the trustee; but after a certain threshold perhaps, the more monitoring and constraining they do, the less they trust this person. Trust is relevant “before one can monitor the actions of … others” (Dasgupta 1988: 51) or when out of respect for others one refuses to monitor them. One must be content with them having some discretionary power or freedom, and as a result, with being somewhat vulnerable to them (Baier 1986; Dasgupta 1988).”


The highlights and underlining in this quoted extract are my additions.  The key observation here being that in my own enquiry to seek evidence of a v | b | t relationship, this acknowledged encyclopaedic resource offers a unifying link more succinctly than I could otherwise have hoped.

This therefore appears a satisfactory venture into the philosophical discussion. However, further observations are reflected upon below. These are useful additional details but each presents new challenges to my ongoing enquiry.

Reliance vs Trust

A further subtlety offered is to distinguish mere reliance, from a breach of trust. The SEP presents this via Annette Baier (1986: 235) “although people who monitor and constrain others’ behaviour may rely on them, they do not trust them if their reliance can only be disappointed rather than betrayed.”  This presents a challenge to my own thinking on what behaviour is to trust therefore, and in the context of project relationships requires me to consider again my v | b | t core.  My only counter to this observation is the additional factoring of the control framework to necessarily consider reliance or trust by all project parties and whether adequate levels of interaction have been permitted to enable a shared interest in outputs the project itself can rely.  This passage revisits the vulnerability of the one party. I pose this as a vulnerability to the project itself.  With less trust, there becomes a greater reliance upon this control framework.  I flag this here as an open question to resolve.  (cf.  Goldberg 2020 via SEP).

Developmental trust

“therapeutic trust” (Nickel 2007: 318; Hinchman 2017 via SEP) which is highlighted as a dynamic attitude toward another – with hope of eliciting an improving trustworthy nature in time. In a project setting I would equate this to the many leadership and management challenges of coaching and development of skills, and the delicate balance of offering increasing responsibility and the controlled hope for a responsive (i.e., changing) trustworthy behaviour. (cf McGeer 2008: 241; Horsburgh 1960 and Pettit 1995 via SEP). As with reliance vs trust in a project context, this is a two way interaction with an appropriate control environment providing backup to this trust gap.

Competence plus motivation

“When we trust people, we rely on them not only to be competent to do what we trust them to do, but also to be willing or motivated to do it.” This too draws upon an external evaluation, albeit deficient, with the SEP referencing Jones criticisms of risk-assessment theories making no attempt to distinguish between trust and mere reliance and therefore criticized for this reason (cf. Jones 1999 via SEP). Other accounts of motivation deemed to require distinctions be made of motives being a determinant of whether trustworthiness is availed (cf. Katherine Hawley “motives-based” theories (2014) via SEP). A third category is also presented; “non-motives-based theories”, which are also not risk-assessment theories (Hawley 2014, SEP). Each strive to distinguish between trust and mere reliance, though not by associating a particular kind of motive with trustworthiness.

Acknowledging a potential boundary case

Perhaps the crucial reflections upon this philosophical summary is to acknowledge the difficulty arising if attempting a singular understanding of what trust and trustworthiness are – whether or not this is beyond mere reliance and reliability. The SEP entry presents the complexity of determining if trust is warranted, and whether such determinants are internal to the trustor or able to be externally accounted for.

Significant problems to my enquiry can now be flagged by virtue of this one summary of the philosophical framework of trust. Trust’s value and therefore its measurement is problematic. Accounts disagree on its rational justification (or even if rationality has different qualities in consideration of trust) or the potential for its illusory properties, or their misrepresentation. The SEP entry gives reason to think trust and distrust have great value when deemed very high and become integral to moral and societal norms and social contracts. Trust is also deemed essential in the exchange of knowledge and therefore wider truth. It argues that it is trust that enables human cooperation, and commitments to future return.

Some hard truth

But I have to therefore ponder upon whether trust can become a tangible measure at all. This SEP entry presents a difference between truth and end-directed rationality. Questions are posed on what trust is – is it an emotion, or a belief, or something else building up to a mental attitude? Various theories are offered across each. It poses questions as to how can trust be developed, and from what to what?

Upon my first reading of this account therefore, I conclude any modelling involving trust as a variable is unlikely to reach quantitative precision given the abstract and diverse parameters it could entail. This is useful. It informs and better frames my ongoing research. Flagging an upcoming obstacle of some size. The very real constraints to which this whole enquiry could ultimately be bound.

I trust you agree with my caution…

About Me

In psychology we are required to look beneath the mask. This blog series is attempting to unmask some hidden parts of projects to engender a more collaborative way.

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