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The Trust Factor

by: Paulo Finuras, associate partner of Hofstede Insights (adapted text, 2019)
The origins of trust and the reasons why individuals decide to trust have a long evolutionary history that connects our brain structure, personal experience, knowledge, emotions, needs, circumstances, evolutionary memory, with the conditions in which we live.

For some researchers1, our ability to trust is primarily due to a biological instinct that translates a type of (pre-programmed) aptitude or adaptive capacity to accept some things at face value. This allows us, with or without evidence, to believe that things are as they appear.

Human beings have always lived in an environment of uncertainty and incomplete information. The first function of trust is precisely to enable decision-making under uncertainty and risk, and, consequently, move on!

In addition, it seems we have an inborn propensity to seek and find patterns, whether or not they have meaning, and to find and believe in relationships between things, even if they do not exist. This mental process is called "apophenia" and can generate two types of errors:

  • false positive (type-1 error), the false identification of patterns, or
  • false-negative (type-2 error), missing the identification of patterns, even when they exist.

However, human beings are evolutionarily programmed to commit more type-1 errors, since this type of error is generally more cost-effective when compared to the type-2 errors.

Research has also shown that this tendency for "patternicity" is heightened by feelings of uncertainty and discontent, leading people to believe, see, or discover illusory patterns when they feel on the verge of losing control of themselves and/or their lives, making them, therefore, more sensitive to the detection of patterns. The whole process can be seen as an adaptive response caused by evolutionary pressure since trust and “trustworthiness” allow for and facilitate preservation, cooperation, survival, and adaptation. That’s why researchers consider that trust has biological roots because, together with this evolutionary pressure, it will have improved the human species’ ability to survive2.

From this biological and evolutionary perspective, it appears that humans have inherited neural mechanisms that have evolved in a way that allows for a continuous assessment of the threat levels around them. This means that we are constantly monitoring and evaluating the circumstances to which we are exposed as positive or negative, promoting flight or fight approach. This continuous evaluation of our environment results in a form of belief that is a type of "certainty" that allows us to act.

If we lived in an environment of "complete uncertainty," without any kind of "minimal certainty," we would be paralysed by hesitation. Therefore, trust generates a sense of control and enables our decision making and action.

Based on what Rousseau called the "Social Contract," we assume that human society is composed of a group of equal individuals who act in a rational way. That is, if individuals cooperate, each one is better off than if everyone fights each other or abandons the group. This continuous "game" of "social contract" suggests that it is easier for a group of equal individuals to behave "rationally" or to seek a "non-zero" outcome3, and to cooperate among themselves in order to ensure their preservation, adaptation, and reproduction because, as a group, they are better able to respond to environmental pressures.

This process becomes so internalised that when we trust in our daily lives, we do not think too much about it in most situations, and we tend to make decisions to trust people, machines, and systems unconsciously. However, behind every decision we make, evolution, and our life experience has prepared us for that moment.


1 O'Hara, 2004; Shermer, 2011; Churchland, 2011, as cited in Finuras, 2017, p.19
2 Bering, 2010; Todorov, 2011, as cited in Finuras, 2017, p.20
3 Wright, 2000, as cited in Finuras, 2017, p.21

Trust is central to human existence as we know it. Why? Because without trust, the collective ability to resolve group problems would not be possible and, therefore, societies as they exist today would be unachievable. The important role that trust plays in society development is largely due to its adaptive nature and function. Trust enables us to believe in and accept some things at face value, therefore, reducing uncertainty and allowing us to make decisions and act based on these acceptances.

Trust is also important because of its huge bioeconomic value. In other words, in the “natural economy” of cost-benefits, as a rule, we obtain more benefits through trust than distrust. Simply put, it is cheaper to trust than distrust.

In addition, although it may appear in a variety of forms, trust forms at least part of the base for all interaction processes and transactions that come from groups, organisations, companies, institutions, society, or even relationships between two people. In fact, trust is a good example of a “cultural universal,” something that is both multidimensional and fundamental across all societies. Without trust, all human organisations and relationships would end up collapsing.

The financial system is one example where we can see how trust is what allows symbolic guarantees to function. Think about it: money is not only a means of exchange but also a “guarantee” where everyone who is using the entire financial system assumes that others will also respect, trust, or believe in the value of the system. Without trust, this system would have no base to develop upon, and would end up failing.

Therefore, trust is undoubtedly one of the greatest assets when it comes to facilitating group cooperation and has accompanied humans throughout history. It impacts simple habits, routines, processes, and roles that increase our predictability and reduce uncertainty. It also allows us to liberate and focus our attention and energy in more complex areas of our lives. This means we can consider trust to be extensive as its impacts have a broad reach and are associated with new forms of global connection.

Additionally, we can see trust as intensive because it produces a change in the behaviours and personal characteristics of everyday life.

Hence, we can understand that the trust problem is multidimensional, as well as an economic asset. One example is the enormous value trust brings to companies, institutions, and other organisations.

Research4 shows that, compared to organisations with low-trust environments, people in high-trust environments report:

  • 74% less stress,
  • 106% more energy at work,
  • 50% higher productivity,
  • 13% less absenteeism due to illness,
  • 76% more involvement with the organisation, and
  • 29% more satisfaction with life.


4 Zak, 2010, as cited in Finuras, 2017, p.19
As emphasised by various authors5, research and reflections on the topic of trust show that the base of well-being and subjective perception of it is strongly associated with the level of trust that exists in each society. This perception of well-being is an important factor that promotes or blocks the development of trust in a society.

Moreover, several studies6 indicate a strong association between interpersonal trust (defined as where most people are believed to be trustworthy), health, wealth, and subjective well-being. The sense that one lives in an environment where people are trustworthy seems to generate significant effects on the perception of the general well-being of the respondents themselves.

In addition, comparing data from different surveys7, some authors have shown that "feeling that others can be trusted," be it with whom one lives with or works, or even with authority figures, is associated with high subjective perceptions of personal well-being. They also concluded that the government's ability to ensure a trustworthy social environment, and to provide efficient and honest services to citizens, is extremely important for general life satisfaction.

Other authors8 have shown that trust is related to economic and income inequality in societies. In countries with large income inequalities, it is more difficult to develop and maintain links between those at the top and those at the bottom of the income scale.

In these scenarios, it is difficult to create bridges across social groups because it is unlikely that individuals across different social strata will share a sense of purpose or common goals and, therefore, trust one another. In fact, several researchers9 have shown the relationship between trust and income and economic inequality as one of the best "predictors" of the level of interpersonal trust in society.

Further research10, using various statistical techniques, suggests that it is inequality that affects the level of trust and not vice-versa (i.e. not that trust impacts the level of inequality). This is important because it establishes the direction of causality. Moreover, this indicates that what is responsible for increasing the level of trust in a country is not so much the economic level of well-being per se, but rather the level of economic equality perceived among the individuals in that same country.

Seen another way, we can say that similarity is the first step to trust because it promotes attraction and, subsequently, emotional comfort. One example of how we can see similarity playing an important role in trust is in Scandinavian societies. Here we can see both a high score on interpersonal trust surveys and, from a historical, evolutionary, and comparative point of view, these groups are, generally, all quite similar.

Therefore, if we want to build societies where people trust more, we also must produce more equal societies.

Hofstede’s research on national cultural differences and how different societies deal with social dilemma’s has resulted in the 6D model on national culture. It offers some interesting insights into Trust. More information on the model can be found here:


5 Fukuyama, 1995; Roth, 2006; Helliwell, 2008; Huang, 2008, as cited in Finuras, 2017, p.23
6 Helliwell, 2008, as cited in Finuras, 2017, p.23
7 Helliwell and Putnam, 2001 , as cited in Finuras, 2017, p.24
8 Uslaner, 2002; Uslaner, 2006, as cited in Finuras, 2017, p.25
9 Knack and Keefer, 1997; Zack and Knack, 2001; Zack and Knack, 2003; Rothstein, 2005;
Wilkinson, 2009, as cited in Finuras, 2017, p.25
10 Bartolini, 2003; Wilkinson, 2005; Uslaner, 2005; Rothstein, 2005, as cited in Finuras, 2017, p.25
11 Original title: O Fator Confiança: a ciência para criar pessoas, líderes e organizações de alta
Last updated: 14.10.2021 - 12:21
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