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The Development Of Trust

As with many aspects of our lives, there is evidence that the foundation for trust is established in early relationships with primary caregivers. In his influential theory of psychosocial development, Erik Erikson theorized that the critical developmental task or "crisis" that must be confronted during the first year of life is trust versus mistrust. Trust in infancy sets the stage for a lifelong expectation that the world will be a good and pleasant place in which to live.

This idea is echoed in the foundational thinking and research of attachment theorists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth and her colleagues. If caregivers are sensitive and responsive to their infant's needs, the infants develop a secure attachment—they learn that the world is a safe place where others can be relied on, and they come to feel that they are worthy of being cared for. If caregivers respond inconsistently or are not responsive to their infant's needs, these infants develop an insecure attachment—they learn that the world is an unpredictable or hostile place where they cannot rely on others to care for them. Given these beginnings, it is not surprising to find that trust is indicative of secure attachment, not only in children, but also in adults (Mikulincer 1998).

Thus, there is evidence that people's earliest relationships establish a foundation for trust that can set the stage for their adult relationships. Current research suggests that parents shape their children's trust beliefs (Rotenburg 1995) and that feelings of trust in young adults are related to the experience of deep attachment to their parents (Amagai 1999). Indeed, in a longitudinal study, Kristina Moeller and Hakan Stattin (2001) report that adolescents with trustful parental relationships experienced greater satisfaction with their partner relationships in midlife.

The suggestion that the capacity to trust is rooted in the social interactions of infancy may imply that trust is a learned personality characteristic that people develop and subsequently carry from relationship to relationship. Certainly there is evidence to suggest that people do differ in global trust, the extent to which they trust other people in general (Rotter 1967). In addition, Laurie Couch and Warren Jones (1997) have suggested that there may be relatively stable individual differences in network trust, the extent to which people trust their family and friends.

However, even if people differ in their general tendency to trust others, there is currently no reason to believe that these levels are completely fixed and immovable. Certainly there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that, with time, even individuals who have been badly scarred by their past experiences can learn to put their faith in people who prove themselves to be consistently caring and trustworthy. More importantly, even if people do have a general capacity to trust based on their A mother cradles her sleeping infant on her shoulder. Because the mother is sensitive and responsive to her infant's needs, the infant develops a secure attachment and trust in the mother. KAREN HUNTT MASON/CORBIS social history, the distinct features of a unique relationship with a specific individual will ultimately determine how much confidence people are willing to place in that person's motives.

How is it that people develop relational trust (Couch and Jones 1997)—trust in a relationship with a specific individual? Currently there are no definitive answers to this question, but scholars generally agree that trust is demonstrated most clearly in situations of risk and vulnerability. As paradoxical as it may sound, people can only learn about how much a partner genuinely cares for them when it is possible for that partner to act in an untrustworthy manner. Only in circumstances where there is a risk of betrayal and disappointment will people be able to confidently regard their partner's behaviors as voluntary actions motivated by feelings of love. Trust in a close relationship develops as each person demonstrates a willingness to respond to the needs and concerns of their partner at some personal cost to themselves.

Although risk-taking fuels the development of trust (Boon 1994), the strength and pattern of interactions involving risk will change as the relationship progresses. The earliest expressions of confidence in a romantic partner may reflect a "blind trust" in an idealized image of the partner constructed from carefully selected fragments of information. Indeed, strong feelings of trust appear to be present even among casually dating couples who have had few opportunities to base their feelings of trust on diagnostic experiences involving risk and vulnerability (Larzelere and Huston 1980). Nonetheless, at some level, newly formed couples seem to realize that their indiscriminate trust is built on a fragile foundation. During the transition from a platonic to a romantic relationship, couples are particularly likely to use social strategies—or "secret tests"—to assess the state of their relationship (Baxter and Wilmot 1984). Furthermore, as intimacy grows, the idealized depictions of the partner are increasingly challenged by evidence from the partner's actual behaviors. Feelings of confidence may be called into question as the lofty images of the partner are replaced with more realistic assessments of the partner's shortcomings (Holmes 1991).

As the relationship progresses there are increasing opportunities for uncertainty to develop, but these same situations also offer opportunities for trust to grow. As the lives of both partners become increasingly intertwined, the possibilities for conflict are intensified. These points of conflict carry with them risks of rejection and harm but, at the same time, they offer opportunities for each partner to demonstrate concern for the relationship and a willingness to take the other's needs into account. If conflict issues are successfully resolved, not only is trust strengthened, but each partner also develops greater confidence that future problems can be solved together.

Thus, trust develops as people demonstrate a willingness to sacrifice their own interests in order to take the needs and concerns of their partner into account. With each successful experience of disclosure or conflict resolution there is further evidence of the partner's commitment to the relationship and greater confidence that the relationship will last and grow stronger.

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Marriage and Family EncyclopediaRelationshipsTrust - Defining Trust, The Development Of Trust, The Impact Of Trust In Established Relationships, Conclusion