Trust as a Construct How It All Began

A boy jumps from a rock into a turquoise sea.
A basic sense of trust means trusting yourself and others as well as the world itself. | Photo: Nikola Radojcic (via Unsplash)

We couldn’t live without trust. And yet trust was initially reserved for certain members of society. A brief history of trust.

We do it every minute of the day without a second thought: we trust. We trust the bus driver: that he has a driving licence as well as a sense of responsibility and that he knows the route. We trust the doctor: that he knows how to remove an appendix. We trust the best-before date on the tinned sausage. In short, we’ve got to trust if we’re to get through our everyday lives, instead of spending hours and hours trying to verify the credentials of the pilot, for example, on our holiday flight. And we want to trust: we want to have faith in love, in our neighbours, in our elected representatives to act consistently for the good of all, in the weather forecast to be right about the nice weather predicted for tomorrow.

Trust as the accolade of a male relationship

This sounds as though trust were like the sun, moon and stars: something that’s always been there, shining on everyone alike. Wrong. For a long time, trust was an exclusively male preserve. From ancient philosophers like Aristotle and Cicero “all the way to the debates in the High Middle Ages over the meaning of friendship”, explains historian Dorothea Weltecke, trust was something like the ennoblement of a “bromance” based on “truthfulness and responsibility”. And according to the Etymological Dictionary of the German Language, the lexical roots of Vertrauen, the German word for “trust”, are likewise associated with virile traits. Vertrauen is the nominalized infinitive of the Middle High German verb vertruwen, from the Old High German prefixed verb fertruen. Vertrauen, along with a bunch of other words of Proto-Germanic origin, belongs to a family of words deriving from the Proto-Indo-European deru (oak, tree) and means “strong, firm, hard like a tree”, says Weltecke.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, trust was finally granted to women, too, and was not confined to “trusting in God”, according to historian Ute Frevert, but also as a mark of friendship, synonymous above all with physical closeness. Vertrauen materialized in the “sharing of secrets, confidences and the like”. Expressions like vertrauter Umgang (“familiar dealings”), Vertrauen an den Tag legen (“to show trust”) and vertraute Briefe (“intimate correspondence”) came to be employed for the most part as euphemisms to mean a same-sex relationship.

Basic trust in the world

To let others, get close to us, we need something called called Urvertrauen, or “basic trust”: the fundamental capacity to enter into trusting relationships. The term was coined by Erik H. Erikson, a German-American developmental psychologist who trained in psychoanalysis with Anna Freud, Sigmund’s daughter. He believed that the “feeling of being able to depend on someone” is based on experiences during the first year of a child’s life. An infant who experiences consistent, reliable loving care from a caregiver will develop basic self-confidence, trust in others and in the outside world. Absent this basic trust, people tend to say things like: “Trust, but verify.” This watchword of the pathologically mistrustful is usually attributed to Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, i.e. Lenin. Actually, it’s said to be one of his favourite old
Russian proverbs: доверяй, но проверяй (doveryay, no proveryay).

Whistle-blowers with the courage to betray a confidence

Judas, Brutus and myriads of broken hearts go to show what havoc can result from the betrayal of trust. But betraying a confidence can also serve a good purpose, as when whistle-blowers risk their livelihood to bring important information to light and thus betray the trust of those who have relied on their secrecy. The first whistle-blower is said to have been Carl von Ossietzky, who, in a series of magazine articles in 1929, exposed the clandestine rearmament of the German Reichswehr in violation of the Treaty of Versailles after Firts World War.

Trust is not necessarily a good thing per se, nor is mistrust necessarily a bad thing. We need both, and both must be based on knowledge and experience – else they’re “blind”. This is why crises of confidence can actually serve to buttress trust. Until I know how a friend of mine behaves in an argument, for instance, or whether a legal system will actually protect my rights in court, I can’t really trust that friend or system, says Rainer Forst. A professor of philosophy and political theory at the Goethe University Frankfurt and winner of the Leibniz Prize, Germany's most highly endowed research award, Forst explores questions of trust in a research project called “ConTrust – Trust in Conflict”. The ideal conditions for the growth of trust, he explains, are to be found precisely where people can exchange views and come to an understanding across all divides, even in ongoing conflicts. Provided, that is, that they approach those who may be different and have different opinions and interests in a cooperative frame of mind, trusting that those others, too, only want what’s best for all: peaceful coexistence across all hurdles. Ultimately, this is still the smartest approach. Because without trust, we couldn’t be friends, we couldn’t love, marry, have kids, even get on the bus to go to work – because nobody on the planet can guarantee us that it will all definitely turn out all right.