Trust and Mistrust

Judith M. Bardwick, Ph.D.


Both Trust and Mistrust are earned; neither is an automatic response to title, status, power, knowledge, influence or money.  Like many very important things, the coin of righteous behavior is very simple:  trust is earned through transparency.  Transparency simply means honesty.  When things are transparent, people know the facts in bad times as well as good; people’s words are hand in glove with their actions; people’s motives are not Machiavellian; what you see is what there is; and what people say is what they mean and what they do.

Trust and Mistrust flow from the basic values of a culture as a culture’s values create expectations of what are normal and acceptable behaviors.  While values represent abstract ideals that are never wholly realized, it is the values that transform the ideals into specific and actionable cultural rules.  The rules establish what is and is not acceptable behavior.

Relatively speaking, a trusting society is open to anyone through personal accomplishments whereas mistrustful societies are entered primarily through one’s position at birth.

In the United States, for example, our ideals say our leaders earn their position through their own achievements.  This means, legitimate decision making authority is not inherited or seized through power.  Instead, leadership is earned in the inclusive culture of a meritocracy, that is, a society that believes in equal opportunity in which rewards are based on merit.  While never perfect, a meritocracy is based on Trust; specifically, Trust that the rules apply to all.

Where there is Trust, people have confidence in their leaders and in a brighter future.  In addition to me and personal goals there is simultaneously an ‘us’ and a commitment to shared goals.  Where the basic expectation is one of Trust, people can relax their need to be in control and that allows them to emotionally connect with others and with institutions.

When people say, for example, that “I am proud to be an American”, they are saying, I trust the words of my government that all people are created free and equal, and hard work and perseverance will be rewarded by your, and especially your children’s upward mobility.   That is the heart of “The American Dream.”

Unfortunately, as the divorce rate has barely moved from its long-term rate of 50 percent of marriages, and Congress is currently held in record-breaking low levels of esteem, and as unemployment remains high and opportunities are relatively few, and as wages have barely moved since the recession that began in 2007, the conditions that create Trust are ebbing while those that foster Mistrust are gaining strength.

While Trust is incomparably valuable, it is simultaneously equally vulnerable to being damaged.  While Mistrust is inevitable when Trust is betrayed, even seemingly innocuous behavior can jeopardize Trust.  Narcissism, a preoccupation of What’s in this for me?  has grown very prevalent and self-centeredness creates barriers to the formation of Trust.  Trust can also be destroyed, for example by misunderstanding or miscommunication.  In these prickly times, just a slip of the tongue or a politically incorrect joke can provoke doubt and suspicion of your motives and values.

The proverb, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”, expresses and demonstrates that even a single breach of faith can destroy Trust.  Once Mistrust exists, it is very difficult to achieve Trust because Mistrust contaminates every assumption and relationship, and people become isolated from each other by their paranoia.  Once skepticism and suspicion are aroused they are self-fulfilling which makes Mistrust intrinsically resistant to efforts to reverse it.  As Mistrust destroys any belief in, or hope for, fairness or compassion, suspicion and expectations of deception take over.


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