Once Bitten, Twice Shy
April 21, 2002
By JANNY SCOTT
New York Times
THINK of trust as a natural resource, like water. It oils
the machinery of human interaction in everything from
marriage and friendship to business and international
relations. There are reserves of trust, in a perpetual
state of replenishment or depletion. And in this parched
and suddenly sweltering spring, it is not just water
supplies that are looking ominously low.
The sexual abuse scandal roiling the Roman Catholic Church
has drained the trust that many Catholics had vested in
their priests and in the church hierarchy. Enron has
undermined trust in Wall Street, corporate accounting and
retirement security. The inability of the Israelis and the
Palestinians to move an inch toward negotiation leaves one
almost mistrusting the very idea of trust.
But what exactly is trust? And how, in a world that seems
so suddenly filled with suspicion - in the parish, in the
workplace, among nations - can trust be recovered?
As psychologists know, trust tends to be built slowly,
through small steps. It is fragile. In everything from
diplomacy to intimacy, it is easier to obliterate than to
Some say trust is the expectation that the faith one places
in someone or some institution will be honored. It demands
vulnerability and grows through small risks. And it
accumulates when those risks are reciprocated, said
Roderick Kramer, a professor of organizational behavior at
Stanford University's Graduate School of Business. A friend
reveals something personal, it is matched, trust deepens.
But a single betrayal can shatter trust. When that happens,
according to John G. Holmes, a professor of psychology at
the University of Waterloo in Ontario, the person whose
trust has been violated may become self-protective,
oversensitive, hypervigilant. They become risk averse.
The great irony of trust is that in order to rebuild it,
one must take risks with the very person who broke it. One
must make oneself vulnerable to one's betrayer.
"You can restore trust," Professor Holmes said. "But it's
The decline of trust in government and other institutions
in the United States over the past 30 years has long been
documented through public opinion polling. At the same
time, some social scientists like Robert D. Putnam, a
professor of public policy at the Kennedy School of
Government at Harvard, have tracked what they describe as a
dwindling of social capital, which includes the so-called
social trust that helps make possible cooperation in civic
The credibility gap in government was driven primarily by
Watergate and Vietnam; it affected Americans of all ages.
The decline in social trust has no single cause, Professor
Putnam said; older Americans remain as trusting as ever,
but they are increasingly outnumbered by younger, less
Not everyone finds those trends alarming. Some have pointed
out that the country was founded in part on a mistrust of
government. Joseph S. Nye Jr., dean of the Kennedy School,
suggests that the high levels of confidence in government
after World War II may ultimately prove to have been more
of an aberration than will the skepticism that followed.
But these days, it is hard not to wonder whether the trust
deficit is suddenly ballooning. In addition to cases like
Enron and the Catholic Church, the climate of distrust in
the Middle East has made negotiations nearly impossible,
and the failed overthrow of President Hugo Chávez of
Venezuela this month immediately produced suspicions in
Latin America - despite a lack of any clear evidence - that
the United States had been covertly involved.
"I like to think there's a reservoir of trust and there's
been a depletion of that reservoir," said Professor Kramer,
who studies trust and leadership. "Enron, I think, is a
major assault on people's trust in financial institutions
but also, importantly, in the institutions that are
supposed to hold financial institutions accountable, such
as Arthur Andersen. So that was a double assault. Because
even if we know that institutions aren't fully trustworthy,
we believe that we have a system in place that makes trust
reasonable and prudent. That's our defense against
misplaced trust; it's our Maginot Line. And that was
When trust collapses entirely, suspicion hardens into
"There's not much you can do when you get to that stage,"
Professor Holmes said. "In relationships, it usually means
they break up, if they can."
But many cannot - sometimes for financial reasons, perhaps
because of the children. A person's relationship with
social institutions operates in a similar way.
Most employees simply cannot afford to bail out of their
job or their 401(k) when their employer declares
bankruptcy. Where does a Catholic who is disenchanted with
the church hierarchy take their family and their faith? And
no country faced with intractable animosity on the part of
its neighbors has the option of pulling up stakes and
finding another spot.
In global conflicts, a classic negotiating technique
entails one side taking a small, unilateral step forward,
said Robert G. Folger, a professor of organizational
behavior at Tulane University who specializes in conflict
management. That is the sort of step, some said, that
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell probably hoped the
Israelis or the Palestinians might take.
YOUR'RE trying to rebuild trust out of distrust," Professor
Folger said. "Part of the way you would do that would be to
be vulnerable. It's tricky. You hate an enemy that you've
feuded with for generations. Your first step has to be
tiny. That's the fine line. You can't afford to get your
That is especially difficult in the Middle East, Professor
Putnam said, because people have been trying
confidence-building measures there for a long time. "You
try doing stitches," he said. "Then over the last 18
months, 10 years of stitching together was ripped out. Once
it's ripped out, it takes 10 years to make up."
As for the church, Christopher Bellitto, a historian of
reform movements in the church and an editor at Paulist
Press, a religious publishing house in Mahwah, N.J., said
there had been instances in the past in which the church
had violated the people's trust, but it was eventually
restored and emerged stronger.
He suggested that the clergy at all levels should respond
to the current crisis by taking the step of increasing its
trust in the laity, allowing them to participate more fully
in the life of the church; and, he said, he hoped the laity
"would remember to trust the overwhelming majority of
priests and bishops, 98.5 percent, who are the good guys."
There is one recent event that has cut sharply against the
long-term declines in trust. The attacks on Sept. 11 and
what has followed appear to have abruptly reversed the
decades-long decline in confidence in the government and
major institutions, as well as the decline in social trust.
Professor Putnam and his colleagues surveyed 30,000
Americans in the fall of 2000, then interviewed 500 to 600
of them again last November. They found big increases in
professed trust in a wide range of things: government, the
police, people of other races, neighbors and the local news
media. Additional interviews last month suggest that only
the upsurge in trust in government has begun to recede -
and that only slightly.
"9/11 was a demonstration fundamentally that we need one
another," Professor Putnam said last week. "It was a
horrible tragedy. But, having said that, it is the kind of
opportunity for rebuilding trust and solidarity that comes
along once a century."
[ May 05, 2002: Message edited by: RichardNYC ]