Trust is more important than ever in our current altered state; trusting the government to have our best interests at heart; trusting a fellow pedestrian to stay two metres away; trusting our co-workers to do their jobs remotely.
Dr Brennan Jacoby who runs Philosophy at Work, an organisation that coaches businesses on philosophical issues, gives us a masterclass on what it means to trust.
What is trust?
Trust is an affective attitude of optimism in the context of special vulnerability.
Can you elaborate?
The vulnerability I’m talking about is that of potential betrayal. And yet we’re optimistic about being vulnerable to betrayal. So the question is: what gives us that optimism? And that’s where perceived trustworthiness comes in. It’s an affective – emotional – response.
It certainly feels like optimism is useful right now
The only optimism that does any real work for us is optimism that’s grounded in reality. Where trust is concerned, the reality that grounds optimism is trustworthiness.
Does crisis heighten our need for trust?
The trouble is – especially where we find ourselves with the Covid-19 pandemic – is that the social rules are very much still being written. We haven’t had time to figure out what we should and shouldn’t expect from people. The guidance around exercise, for example, is vague. If I see my neighbour leave their house for a jog and then come back three hours later, should I be judging them? Maybe they’re a marathon runner and so, before the lockdown, I could predict that they’d go for long runs. But now, I’m not sure which normative expectations I should have.
How do we navigate a time like this?
The best thing we can do is take steps to ensure that we are cultivating governments, organisations, teams and communities that are characterised by trustworthiness because that’s going to stand us in good stead. We need to be asking the right kinds of questions to help us make as many well-informed decisions as possible.
Can we ever trust too much?
Yes. Lots of companies I work with tell me they want to build more trust, but too much trust can enable abuses of power. Trust can be misplaced, and trust can run contrary to many of our business goals. If we’re working with colleagues and trying to be innovative and build good teams, we don’t want people to just trust everything we say. We want people – in a positive way – to push back and challenge us. What we want is appropriate and well-placed trust.
We don’t want blind trust. We need constructive criticism. We need to feel safe enough ask questions.