Trust: ‘Better Than Rational’?

Maria R. Markus, University of New South Wales

Russell Hardin Trust and Trustworthiness, Russell Sage Foundation, 2002 (230 pp). ISBN 0-87154-342-7 (hard cover) RRP US$32.50.

Elinor Ostrom and James Walker (eds) Trust and Reciprocity, Russell Sage Foundation, 2003 (400 pp). ISBN 0-87154-647-7 (hard cover) RRP US$39.95.

Most social scientists—and most people—believe that the pace of social change is accelerating. The sense of accelerating change has been a defining feature of modernity since the 18th century. But today the speed and form of change are unprecedented, such that the very idea of society—understood as a set of stable institutions with clear boundaries and tasks—has come into question.

In a process Anthony Giddens calls ‘disembedding’ (1990, pp. 21–29), social institutions are increasingly disconnected from people’s everyday concerns, and so less and less able to supply people with any meaningful orientation and reliable systems of support. Social change is no longer a process of gradual and controlled transformations, revisions, modifications, and adjustments. Rather, social reproduction is increasingly messy and confused. ‘Change’ no longer means a temporary break in the routine or its correction, but has become more or less constant. Accelerating and ‘disembedding’ change has expanded our opportunities, but does not always enhance our autonomy. Indeed, the bewildering array of choices we now confront is often paralysing.

Everyday life is today, as always, more or less based on routine. But our routines are increasingly uncertain and fragile, and seem to lack a stable normative basis. We can observe this everywhere—in the world of work and in family life, even in intimate relationships, where ‘commitment’ often means only ‘till further notice’. All social ties are becoming more brittle and temporary. The breakdown of established normative and symbolic structures dissolves existing identities and forms of life, without providing in their place new orienting reference-points. As Nisbet argues, the real problem is not ‘the loss of old contexts but rather the failure … to create new contexts of associations and moral cohesion’ (2000, p. 48).

It is not surprising, then, that many social scientists have rediscovered concepts of confidence, trust, cooperation, social capital and so on, all of which are envisaged as at least partial remedies to our current predicament. In the now burgeoning literature, trust occupies centre stage, because trust is considered critical to both social integration through cooperation and to people’s psychological well-being. Indeed, one common diagnosis of our predicament is that our societies are seriously deficient in trust. Contributors to the debate dispute the form and pervasiveness of this deficiency, and not all of them subscribe to Robert Putnam’s thesis of our ‘bowling alone’ (2000). Nonetheless, the idea persists that we live in a ‘society of strangers’, a ‘cynical society’, a ‘culture of suspicion’, or a ‘culture of fear’. Whether, and to what degree, this perception reflects social reality is not so easy to tell, because the perception itself constitutes a social fact. It also depends on our understanding of trust and this is one of the topics the expanding literature on trust is addressing.

All social ties are becoming more brittle and temporary.

The Russell Sage Foundation Series on Trust represents a notable addition to this literature. Its editors aim to promote works that ‘raise questions about how trust can be distinguished from other means of promoting cooperation and explore those analytic and empirical issues that advance our comprehension of the roles and limits of trust in social, political, and economic life’, and not only enrich social science but also inform public policy (Ostrom & Walker 2003, p. v). The two works reviewed here appear as volumes IV and VI in this series. They are quite different in style, method, and theoretical underpinnings, but both attempt to provide rigorous, scholarly analyses of the social phenomenon of trust.

Russell Hardin’s Trust and Trustworthiness consists of several interconnected chapters, various versions of which have been published earlier. The first part of the book clarifies concepts and examines a range of theoretical propositions—partly in support of Hardin’s conclusions, partly as criticism that warrants a different understanding of the relevant concepts to those found in the ‘mainstream’ literature. The second part tests the explanatory power of these propositions, and examines a range of diagnoses of the state of trust in contemporary societies.

Trust has many forms and even more meanings. It is, however, possible to find an overlapping set of characteristics of trust, which most authors—often working with quite diverse theoretical assumptions—accept with some variations and additions (see, for example, Luhmann 1979; Barber 1983; Gambetta et al. 1988; Barbalet 1996; Sztompka 1999; and Offe 1999). First of all, trust is usually envisaged as situated ‘in a set of belief concepts bounded at the extremes by faith and confidence, where the variable significance of evidence or proof is matched by a compensating level of affectivity’ (Hart 1988, p. 188). Trust, then, is connected to both cognition and emotions. Trust allows us to ‘stabilise’ parameters of our actions under conditions of contingency, by enabling us to presume generally ‘benign or at least non-hostile intentions on the part of partners in social interactions’ (Hart 1988, p. 188). Or, as Gambetta beautifully puts it, trust is ‘a device for coping with the freedom of others’ (1988, p. 219), meaning that the limits of our foresight and uncertainty about other people’s behaviour are central to trust.

Trust has many forms and even more meanings.

Hardin develops his own account of trust within the modified ‘rational-choice’ paradigm, of which the basic premise is that both the truster and the trustee act to maximise their utilities by rational calculations that take into account available information. Trust, according to Hardin, refers to ‘essentially rational expectations about the self-interested behaviour of the trusted’ (p. 6, italics mine), although he does allow also for other motivations (or incentives), such as morality, reciprocity and the like (p. 13). He constructs a model of a specific type of trust, based on the notion of ‘encapsulated interest (pp. 3–13): ‘I trust you because I think it is in your interest to attend to my interests in the relevant matter’ (p. 4). Hardin considers this the most general of currently available models of trust, with wide explanatory power.

In Trust and Reciprocity, Elinor Ostrom and James Walker approach the problem of cooperation and trust from a different direction. Analysis of field studies and laboratory experiments prompted Ostrom (and some of her co-authors) to investigate the observed discrepancy between the grim predictions of rational choice theory and the more positive findings of empirical research. Field studies and experiments often demonstrate peoples’ willingness to cooperate and sustain agreements, ‘counteracting individual temptations to select actions based on short-sighted individual incentives’ (p. 381). Starting with this observation, Ostrom constructs a behavioural theory of trust, based on the concept of reciprocity and a model of the individual as a ‘fallible cognizer’, to whom the assumptions of rational choice theory apply only as a limiting case (p. 39). This broader model of human behaviour presumes that not only are humans capable of learning cultural norms and institutional rules, but that they are also capable of ‘designing new tools—including institutions—that can change the structure of the worlds they face’ (p. 25). As a consequence, people are able to achieve results that are ‘better than rational’ (p. 7, italics mine).

Many of the works in this collection share Ostrom and Walker’s understanding of trust ‘as the willingness to take some risk in relation to other individuals on the expectation that the others will reciprocate’ (p. 382). Reciprocity, then, conceived partly as an evolutionary trait and partly as social achievement, takes a place alongside cooperation and trust as a central concept in the volume. However, it is not clear that experimental research on cooperation and trust contributes much to a better understanding of the mechanisms and conditions of trust in the larger society, because experiments do not approximate the complex social situations in which real actors move and make their cooperative (or uncooperative) choices.

Ostrom constructs a behavioural theory of trust, based on the concept of reciprocity.

One of the most important questions for the social sciences in addressing the relationship between trust and cooperation concerns the possibility of the ‘generalisation’ (or universalisation) of trust. This implies at least two different meanings. On the one hand, it could refer to whether we can develop, through participation in small-scale, mostly intimate relationships of trust, a sort of ‘trusting habit’, extendable to more and more people or to people separated from us by greater social distances, up to trusting ‘strangers’. On the other hand, it could ask whether, and under what conditions, ‘entrusting someone with something’ can develop into a more generalised form of trust, conductive to cooperation on a larger scale.

Hardin considers the idea of generalised trust at best insufficiently grounded, and at worst meaningless. He argues that most of the results of surveys and laboratory experiments usually regarded as demonstrating the existence of generalised trust, can be reinterpreted as trust in the form of ‘encapsulated interest’. However, his conception ultimately renders the notion of generalised trust meaningless, because he understands trust as an inherently micro-level phenomenon, grounded in small-scale interactions. As a cognitive idea, it necessarily faces epistemological limits. Not all is lost, though, because Hardin admits the possibility of ‘quasi-trusting’ relations, or optimistic attitudes, which are neither cognitive nor relational, but dispositional. So while trustworthiness can be taught, mainly through experience, it is also possible to cultivate a general optimistic disposition toward trust, especially in children. Both require certain conditions and institutional safeguards against the abuse of trust. That is, they basically require conditions of confidence.

If established, Hardin argues, a ‘general atmosphere of trustworthiness and optimistic disposition to trust makes not only the market but also social life more generally go much better than it would without such an atmosphere’ (p. 191). But this would still not allow us to speak about generalised trust nor even widespread trust by any individual, since widespread trust, according to Hardin, means no more than lots of people, each trusting few other, ‘particular’ people (p. 179).

Hardin leaves the dilemma of our times unresolved.

Thus, Hardin leaves the dilemma of our times unresolved. We live in societies where social interactions beyond the intimate sphere are largely functional interactions with ‘strangers’. How a ‘bridging’ type of trust can be developed among strangers, what social and institutional conditions must be present to make it still rational, perhaps with a different understanding of rationality itself, still remains an unanswered question not just by the two books reviewed but generally in the relevant literature.


Barbalet, J. M. 1996, ‘Social emotions: confidence, trust and loyalty’, The International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, vol. 16, no. 9/10, pp. 75–96.

Barber, B. 1983, The Logic and Limits of Trust, Rutgers University Press, New Jersey.

Gambetta, D. 1988, ‘Can we trust trust?’ in Trust: Making and Breaking Cooperative Relations ed D. Gambetta, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, pp. 213–238.

Giddens, A. 1990, The Consequences of Modernity, Polity Press, Cambridge.

Hart, K. 1988, ‘Kinship, contract, and trust: the economic organization of migrants in African city slum’ in Trust: Making and Breaking Cooperative Relations, ed. D Gambetta, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, pp. 176–193.

Luhmann, N. 1979, Trust and Power, John Wiley & Sons, New York.

Nisbet, R. 2000, ‘“The quest for community”: A study in the ethics of order and freedom’ in The Essential Civil Society, ed D.E. Eberly, Rowman & Littlefield, Oxford, pp. 33–49.

Offe, C. 1999, ‘How can we trust our fellow citizens?’ in Democracy and Trust, ed. M. E. Warren, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 42–87.

Putnam R. D. 2000, Bowling Alone, Simon and Schuster, New York.

Sztompka, P. 1999, Trust: A Sociological Theory, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Maria Markus is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of New South Wales.