What are Trust and Mistrust?


Judith M. Bardwick, Ph.D.


Trust…Mistrust…two brief and simple words. The words trip lightly on our tongue and most of the time probably the majority of people don’t give these terms much attention as though they’re too simple, thus too light-weight to be worth heavy-duty thought.

But they are very big words because they are labels for extraordinarily important conditions. Trust is the critical mental state that is required in every relationship in every situation in order for the relationship to flourish.  Trust dissolves the boundaries between people and between institutions and between nations.  Trust, alone, is the glue that allows positive relationships to develop.  Immensely powerful, Trust creates connections in which a word, a hug, or a handshake seals the deal.

What, then, are Trust and Mistrust?  Trust is a feeling that creates the expectation you can work together despite any differences in the results you want to achieve or in the methods you want to use, or even in the face of external resistance to achieving your common goal.

Trust is the expectation that there is good faith in working or being together in order to achieve a common goal, for example a new business product or a life together. Although there may not always be agreement, with Trust the parties feel free to express disagreement and work to find grounds to agree.  Forthrightly expressing disagreement is seen as virtuous dissent in pursuit of better ideas with Trust, people who disagree with work to find grounds to agree because their relationship is built on mutual benefit. They expect the relationship to be beneficial to both.

Where Trust is widespread people need to experience a breach of trust or see behavior that raises flags before they actually feel Mistrust. In an environment in which feelings of Trust are basic, people expect to be trusted and they usually start out assuming they can Trust others in a new relationship. Where there is Trust people generally believe their world is fair, and the playing field is sufficiently level that their good work will be recognized, praised, and rewarded.

There are some people we instinctively do not trust. Consciously and unconsciously we are responding to cues which make us uncomfortable.  Their behavior, for example never feels spontaneous and authentic.  Their public face feels like a mask; and their persona feels contrived.  Some people raise our hackles because they seem to relish cheating others so they project duplicitousness.

Trust is more difficult to achieve than Mistrust because Trust requires that all parties Trust each other; Mistrust only requires that one party does not trust for Mistrust to be the prevailing condition.

Once achieved, Trust is not always a constant. That feeling can change with new circumstances or situations such as when a colleague is promoted and becomes noticeably more powerful than any of the previous peers.  If that person becomes infatuated with their new power and insists on issuing orders and micro-managing, they invite resentment from those they are ordering about.  Because micro-managing shows a lack of respect, that breach of Trust breaks the bond.  The usual outcome is the old relationship grows sour and there is mutual Mistrust.

Mistrust is a conviction, based on experience that the others’ intentions and goals are consistently shaped by different motives than those they express. In other words, regardless of any passionate declarations on their part of mutual interests, or doing something “for your own good,” they cannot be counted on.  Instead, they are willing to deceive or roll over you in order to advance their self-interest.

In addition to Trust and Mistrust there are intermediate beliefs or positions that fall between these states: We call them Wariness, Understanding, and Suspicion. The different states are not part of a continuous spectrum.  Instead, they are separate as each state is emotionally different.  But like Trust and Mistrust, they can be impacted by the other states.  This means that although each state is separate, they also inter-relate.

We see these states on ways of perceiving and interpreting the world:

With TRUST, the other has proven transparent and dependable over time through their performance. They have a history of following through on what they promise and they consistently honor their commitments.  They are truthful and honest.

With WARINESS, there is uncertainty about the others’ reliability. While they might be trustworthy, that has not been confirmed.

Wariness is that natural state which exists before there is enough experience to know whether or not Trust is possible. While Wariness can occur at any time it occurs most frequently when a relationship is new and there is a natural period of uncertainty about a person’s or an organization’s intentions, level of good will, and reliability.

UNDERSTANDING involves a substantial amount of knowledge about another person’s or an organization’s typical behavior. This state is unique among the five states in that it usually involves more thinking and analysis than feeling.

Understanding is based on logic and facts where Wariness and Suspicion are primarily emotional with a small amount of facts and logic. Trust and Mistrust are almost entirely emotional but may be supported and reinforced by reason and logic.

With SUSPICION, One party is convinced their Trust has been betrayed by the other but there’s no proof yet.

When one party is convinced they have detected behaviors which are significantly different from what the parties said was how they saw the nature of the relationship. The usual response to the suspicion of duplicity is uncertainty followed by dread that the betrayal is true, along with the fervent hope that the conclusion is false.  Those who believe their Trust has been violated typically alternate between rage and despair.  The longer Suspicion continues, the stronger the conviction grows that the Suspicion is true, the angrier and more frightened and resentful most people become.

Both anger and depression sap energy but taking action invigorates it because taking action gives people a sense of having some control over what happens. Initiating an action frequently includes searching for further evidence.  A wife or husband, for example, might examine their spouse’s emails, checkbooks, credit expenses… and pockets or pocket books.  When no further evidence of wrong doing is found, they usually keep looking, confident they just haven’t looked enough.   Mistrust is the result of any circumstance where Trust is lacking.  It can range from the rejection of the boasts.

The most important insight this blog introduces is there is only one possible way to move away from mistrusting and it is by going into the state of Understanding.

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