Trust and confidence

28 Dec

In the last decade or so interest within mainstream trust literature in more impersonal forms of trust, e.g., system , organizational, or institutional trust, has surged. Interestingly, these are all called trust, not confidence. The Trust Confidence and Cooperation model (Earle et al 2007) – that is not cited in this literature – uses confidence and trust as explicitly separate concepts in a way that struck me as odd at first, given that I hold the (implicit) assumptions dominant in the mainstream trust literature. I am struggling with how to interpret this model in light of this other research and how I should adapt my thinking. I present you with my struggles, in the hope that a further conversation develops to help clarify the conceptual puzzles. On this page, I have a longer version of this blog, with more background on the TCC model and details about my struggles.

Trust Confidence and Cooperation model (TCC)

The TCC model is based on the premise that there are two principal pathways to cooperation. One path is via social trust and is based on ‘morality information’, while the second path is via confidence and is based on performance information.

“Trust is social and relational; confidence is instrumental and calculative. We define trust as the willingness, in the expectation of beneficial outcomes, to make oneself vulnerable to another based on a judgment of similarity of intentions or values. Confidence is the belief, based on experience or evidence (e.g., past performance), that certain future events will occur as expected” (Earle, 2009, p. 786).

So you have agent-based trust and object-based confidence.

Revisiting Luhmann (1988)

For Luhmann (1988) the distinction between trust and confidence is primarily about whether you perceive you have a choice or not. Confidence is the normal everyday situation: “you are confident that your expectations will not be disappointed” (p.97). You disregard the possibility of disappointment “because you do not know what else to do”, i.e. you experience a situation where you cannot see an alternative. If you do consider alternatives and actively choose one over the other, then you see the situation as one of trust.  “Trust is only required if a bad outcome would make you regret your action” (p.98), because you had a choice between alternatives and would with hindsight choose another alternative. Because of his emphasis on having a choice between alternatives, Luhmann proposes that “a relation of confidence may turn into one of trust if it becomes possible (or is seen to be possible) to avoid that relation” (p.98) as is the possibility of trust turning to confidence if you perceive a situation as no longer open to influence. Thus, according to Luhmann, the distinction is not black and white, it depends on perception and attribution.

My thoughts and struggles

I can see the benefit of distinguishing more carefully between trust and confidence than I have done recently, but I wonder whether Earle et al in their TCC model are pushing it too far.

  • Distinction between perceiving to have a choice or not, is relevant, which is what Luhmann stresses.
    • What about the research into automatic and deliberate decision-making? See e.g., Kahnemann’s bestseller Thinking, fast and slow, 2011 that shows that we make far fewer decisions consciously than we think. That would suggest that most of our lives we have confidence rather than face decisions about trust, also in interpersonal interactions. And also that we overestimate the degree to which we trust compared to which we actually only have confidence, as we tend to overestimate our deliberate decision-making. Or maybe that is exactly the crucial point to make!
    • How about research into trust and regulation? Is that all about confidence, as Earle et al suggest, rather than trust, after all you do not have a choice? But Braithwaite & Makkai (1994) showed how the trust care home directors had in the inspectors, affected compliance during the next inspection. That surely is not just about confidence? And how about citizen trust in regulation: that may actually be mainly about confidence…. or not?
  • Distinction between being vulnerable to actions of other people versus large, impersonal systems, also makes sense as this implies aligning the concepts with structure-agency distinction.
    Should we therefore be talking about trust in organizational member we have direct contact with and confidence in the institutions as the two components of what we now call trust in organizations (e.g. Kroeger 2012; Bachmann & Inkpen, 2011)?
  • I personally prefer distinction between intentions and competence as main dimensions of trustworthiness. Intentions then encompass both goodwill/benevolence, and integrity in terms of both adherence to and acceptability of principles/values.
    • As Dietz (2011) showed, you usually base your assessment about the other party’s trustworthiness on different sources of information. So you assess the past performance of the other party for clues about both intentions and competence. As you do any other source of information, such as third party testimonials, external regulation for that other party, etcetera. Past performance not only gives clues about competence, as Earle et al suggest as they reinterpret competence trust into confidence, but also clues about goodwill and norm/values congruence, through relational signals (cf Six and Sorge, 2008).
    • Therefore I find it difficult to work with Earle et al’s distinction between morality information versus performance information. What kind of information is morality information if it is not part of performance? External regulation has very different impact on regulatees compliance depending on the regulatee’s dominant motivational posture or decision frame (Tenbrunsel & Messick, 1999), so surely it cannot only lead to confidence?
    • Research shows the relevance of distinguishing between intentions and competence/ability because of the attributions that follow a breach of trust. Competence-based trust violations require different remedies than integrity-based trust violations (e.g., Ferrin et al 2007).
  • Where I think that Earle et al (2007) push it too far, is that all performance is about confidence and that trust is only about shared values.
    • Whether the other person can actually perform the action that you trust him to perform, is not relevant. If so, then there is always a combination of trust and confidence needed, even in interpersonal situations.
    • All control measures (rules, performance, etcetera) only contribute to confidence and not trust.
    • Both confidence and trust are only possible when values are shared if I interpret their model correctly, since bases for confidence only work within the community of trust in which the measures (regulations, rules/procedures, contracts record keeping/accounting, control, competence etc) are agreed. What happens when there are insufficient shared values to establish such a community?

3 thoughts on “Trust and confidence

  1. I guess you are right that Earl sets the line between trust and confidence too sharp. Correct is, I think, the overestimation of deliberate decision making. I agree also on the too sharp division between confidence in systems and trust in persons for the intention of the other party. What is missing (imho) is de resilience of the trustor. Can and will he accept the risk (trust) because he can cope with it, or does he think the risk will not occur (confidence). That can apply to both persons and systems.

  2. Hoi Frederique, interessant en ingewikkelde vraag, ik denk ook dat confidence en trust bijna gelijk zijn. En percieved morele informatie kan misschien tegengesteld zijn aan percieved performance informatie, of er kan wel/geen consensus zijn bij het uitzenden van de morele informatie… en dan kunnen beide (denk ik) gevolgen hebben voor zowel confidence als trust.
    Bij het lezen dacht ik nog even aan het onderzoek naar integriteitsbeleid in banken, waardoor ik bij confidence moest denken aan de psychologische self-esteem van Deci als voorwaarde voor overdragen van intrinsieke motieven. Kan confidence van actoren in een bestuur of systeem, in dat geval misschien wel meer los staan van trust… (ik zit nu niet zo goed in deze theorie, maar interessant).

  3. In general parlance trust and confidence are almost synonymous. Distinguishing them as scientists in ways that diverge from what we find in dictionaries (and from the different connotations these words have), as all these authors seem to do, has little performative value. It fortifies Ivory towers, if it gets much attention at all. “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”
    When distinguishing different types of trust/confidence in order to improve the world, it seems wiser to distinguish them in ways that are not already in use otherwise. E.g. agent-based and object-based trust.
    English happens to have two words for a phenomenon that in other languages has only one. Focussing on dichotomous distinctions excludes many options for useful distinctions. When distinguishing types of trust/confidence in order to analyse pathways to cooperation, I could think of many other analytical models that distinguish 3, 4 or even 5 types. E.g. the 5 colours of change of Caluwé & Vermaak or the 4 ways of organising that I tend to distinguish myself (in “Economics of want and greed” and in “Economics as meant”).
    From different perspectives and with other starting questions than “how to improve cooperation” many other distinctions are possible. THE point how to improve society. Some people even seem to think that competition is better than cooperation…

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