The Trust Problem. Some people and some countries have it. Some don't. Why?


Whom do you trust? In a society, less trust = more laws. Signals of trust change between cultures, and even social class. In some countries public trust is almost zero. Also, can a “Facebook friend” or a face from TV be really trusted? An Internet romance? For some, religion signals trustworthiness. What is your solution for building trust in a complicated world?

Thor May

Adelaide, 2016




This page is an initial starter list for discussing the "Trust " topic. The page makes no special claim to quality, and additions are welcome. 




Basic contact links:  

meetup group:

topic suggestions:   

topics already discussed:

comments: Thor May -  

Thor's own websites:

1. articles at  ;

2. personal site: [an ancient site with many byeways]


=>Reading list: go to the end of these notes


Fine Words Are Not Equal To Fine Deeds

by Aesop (c. 620 564 BC)

Once a very good lion was king of all the animals in the fields and the forests.

He was not angry or cruel or unfair, but only kind and gentle.

During his reign he made a royal proclamation to all the animals.

He laid out rules for a Universal League of animals.

In this League, the wolf would not harm the lamb, nor would the panther harm the kid.

The tiger would not hurt the deer, and the dog would not hurt the hare.

Everyone should live in perfect peace and friendship.

When the hare saw this proclamation, she said, "Oh how I have waited for this day.

How wonderful it is that the weak will stand alongside the strong without fear."

After she said this, the hare ran away for her life.

Comments on the topic by Thor:

a. Introduction

New Zealand, when I lived there in the 1960s and 1970s, had the highest level of public trust that I’ve known. China, when I lived there (1998-2000 and 2007-2010) seemed to have almost no public trust. Life is so much less complicated and more efficient when the level of trust is high: a great deal can be taken for granted, so-called security concerns are minimal. My impression is that Australian public and private life has been trending towards the wrong end of the trust index for quite a while. These notes are an exploration of some of the factors involved.

One way to begin teasing out what is involved in trust is to draw up a little table of sample situations and role types, indicating your trust comfort level with them, and also how you guess average others might rate them (i.e. are you just being paranoid? This is a very approximate exercise, but it sets some navigation beacons). If the trust index is trending in the wrong direction the big issue of course is how to turn it around, both at a personal level, and at the level of the wider society.

Examples on a scale of 1-5, with average others in brackets. 5 = highest trust :


 Situation or role

Trust what?



consult a doctor

doctor’s competence



buying on the Internet

getting what you pay for



submitting a CV

expect that the CV will be trusted



asking help from a stranger

expect that the stranger will judge you to be genuine



Be seen as a trustworthy person

Do most people trust your general intentions?



Ask for advice from Centrelink

Do you trust the advice given to you by Centrelink staff?



Walk anywhere at night

Do you trust that you will  be safe walking at night



Get help from the police

Do you trust that the police will treat you competently and fairly?



Qualifications 1.

Do you trust other’s qualifications as an indication of competence?



Qualifications 2.

Do you trust other’s qualifications as an indication of useful learning



This list could obviously go on forever, and will be constantly modified by individual situations. However, it is probably true that we do have a default mindset for the trust index which will influence the way we approach other people. Similarly, there is probably a default mindset in certain groups of people which influences how they see themselves in the community (my guesses above have no foundation in research at all). In fact, we know these mindsets exist because of the existence of political constituencies (e.g. the people who are drawn to Donald Trump in the United States). Keeping track of such scores may be more witchcraft than science.  

b. Starter questions

1. What does it really mean to be  “a trusting person”? Are you a trusting person?

“A trusting person”, at least in my culture, is a paradoxical phrase. On the one hand it might be a slightly sarcastic comment about someone who is a bit naïve and who perhaps has fallen for an obvious scam like a Nigerian romance e-mail. On the other hand it might refer to the character of a person in a complimentary way, a generous personality who is open enough to give anyone the benefit of the doubt until they prove themselves unworthy of such trust. Context then is important. We all know people who are quite open and accepting, as well as others who are closed and suspicious, sometimes to the point of paranoia. It is a matter of personal judgement, partly drawn from life experience, where we place ourselves. This may be influenced by our roles, and usually also by the culture within which we find ourselves. Are you a trusting person?

2. What do you react to when you are deciding to trust or not trust a person?


What people find trustworthy varies tremendously, and often we are not very good judges. After all, about half of marriages fail. Biology plays a part. We automatically respond to faces, yet in the factory where babies are made we don’t get to choose our own face. If you were unlucky enough to be born with a certain kind of face you might face a lifelong struggle to secure the trust of others, especially in situations where the encounter if brief, such as selling or job interviews.

Some people are impressed by styles of dressing, or obvious wealth. One investment bank in England recently admitted that it failed job candidates who wore brown shoes because their customers judged brown shoe wearers to be less trustworthy. Others are contemptuous of ‘suits’ (a person wearing a suit) and automatically regard them with distrust.

On the whole people are more trusting of individuals who fit into a familiar cultural role and type. That is, they believe they know what to expect. Sometimes those roles are occupational, such as doctor. For  some people, cultural expectations are rigidly defined by skin colour, ethnicity, nationality, religion etc. and they are reluctant to extend trust to those beyond their own circle.

In our daily lives, as we come to know particular individuals we will calibrate our trust of them based on past experience. Children normally have great trust in their parents, at least until their teenage years. If we know somebody from a work environment we will trust or not trust their behaviour in that context, while having little idea of their private life.

Of course, the word ‘trust’ itself is very situational. How far you trust a person will depend upon what you are asking them to do. If I know from past experience that a man is a good mechanic I will be happy to entrust my car to him, but might not even consider taking him into my trust to assist with a personal crisis. A manager might trust a simple fellow to pick up the mail, but know that the same fellow could not conceivably be trusted to understand and make complex business decisions. Conversely, less complicated individuals are apt to regard clever people with a good deal of distrust (and dislike) since they may not be able to predict what these clever people will do.

The hardest trust choices are those about individuals where the consequences of trust are extremely unclear. A simple example is trusting call centre workers to rectify a complaint when you are not sure if the call center worker either understands or cares about the issue, and their identity vanishes with the end of a phone call (I have learned to always ask for an ID number).

A much more difficult environment of unknown consequences occurs with online dating and romance sites where the potential for emotional and financial damage is quite large. Intimate personal relationships, let alone a commitment to marriage, are always a gamble. Taken to the virtual level of the Internet, real life commitments without live, in-person encounters, are a significant area of criminal activity. Yet regardless of risk, millions of people do extend that trust daily, and a proportion lose badly. (Police report that in Australia about 70% people who are warned when they are at risk of  particular online romance scams disbelieve the police and go on to lose their money).  On the upside, some studies have shown that most people engaged in an online hunt for “the one” are in fact genuine and tell the truth about themselves, more or less (e.g. Seidman 2014)

In various employment situations it is not uncommon for younger employees to be quietly tested in various ways to see if they can be trusted to be discreet, have good judgement, and so on. Occasionally the “testers” disqualify themselves. In 1964 I joined the Australian Commonwealth Public Service in Brisbane before being posted to Canberra. No doubt as part of the decision about what to do with me, an office manager took a Browning .32 calibre pistol out of his draw, handed it to me and asked me to walk each week around Brisbane two paces behind an older man carrying a cash payroll in his briefcase. My enquiries about weapons training were brushed off, and when I persisted with asking about when and where I would have personal liability for causing injury in any attempted robbery the manager was visibly annoyed. I was posted to Canberra in a mind-bending dead-end clerical office. I had failed their implicit do-or-die challenge test. They had also failed my test, giving a deadly weapon with no training to a 17 year old kid, and evading responsibility. I left.  I’ve had a diminished trust in bureaucracies ever since. 

3. What situations do you trust yourself to handle well, and where do you not trust yourself? Why? How has this changed over time?

Perhaps the most important part of coming to maturity is learning your own limitations, learning to deal with them as is, and learning to overcome them. It is often a painful process, and in some matters we never know how far to trust ourselves until a crisis arrives. The poor judgement and disregard of consequences shown by many young people up to their mid twenties (not fully developed frontal lobes, in physiological terms), may even have evolutionary advantages. They trust their abilities where trust is not justified, and plunge into situations of high risk, no matter whether that is romance or a war or a job or robbing a bank. Sometimes they crash and burn. Sometimes they survive, sadder but wiser about trust. Personally I regret not having taken more risks in that age of innocence (maybe I was never innocent enough). The costs may have been higher, but perhaps also the rewards.

With age and experience comes a degree of self-knowledge, at least for some people, and with that comes self-trust in what they can manage both technically and interpersonally. I can happily stand in front of a hundred people to  speak, a challenge that would have been way beyond my confidence at 19, yet have never learned to be really at ease in intimate dialogue. Also, reflecting on past regrets, there have been times when I lost my temper briefly, and would like to think such losses of grace are past (but the self-trust in self-control is not quite there if provoked).

The hero’s tale: It is remarkable how a hero of the school football team will transform into a timid company employee, castrated by the fear of losing a mortgage, a wife and a child. We would all like to be a hero in our own movie, but without a certain chutzpah such narratives are rarely trusted by others, or even ourselves. Real tests of character or skill, when they come, are often not anticipated. For example, I am definitely not the derring-do hero type, yet once as a young man broke up a knife fight without stopping to reflect, and got away with it. (An hour later I was shaking like a leaf, imagining what might have happened). I would never trust myself to run that script again. Still, one can’t be sure until the moment comes.

People often do trust in reputation, including their own, even if it has been manufactured by a PR agency (the propagandist is usually his own first victim). With public figures, especially politicians, as the years pass and the flip-flops of declared belief multiply, it can come to a point where nobody including central actor any longer knows who “the real” person is. For example, a figure like Hillary Clinton, current US presidential candidate, has mutated so many times over 40 years that she is almost universally distrusted on both sides of politics, yet it is not beyond possibility that she could  emerge as a genuinely transformative figure (in a way that it is almost impossible to imagine her opponent, Donald Trump, doing).

Rehearsed role plays have a way of coming undone. In every occupation the players rehearse for their roles. Much schooling is about just that, not to speak of peer pressure, media propaganda, and all the rest. Those who are pumped up with all this stuff, but still untested, may have absolute trust in their own abilities and own rectitude. People around them may share the trust, and whole careers can pass without serious challenge to such structures of trust and confidence. On the other hand, brutal tests may come too. It is the new army recruit who is overconfident, and the veteran returning from three tours of duty in Afghanistan + PTSD who is likely to have learned the limits of trust and self-trust. What goes for individuals sadly can go for whole nations too. Patriotism/nationalism too often become trusted vehicles for a community’s identity, vehicles which are inevitably betrayed. I have been in countries where a shrieking mob can be aroused to defend the imagined honour of a country (countries are imaginary realms), yet fellow citizens are left to die in the streets.


4. Which occupational groups do you trust the most, and which the least? What do you actually mean when you say that, for example, you trust a doctor?

5. In most learning situations we have to take a great deal on trust (e.g. I can’t easily test the melting point of steel personally). That is we agree to trust some kind of authority. What are some downsides of trusting authority?

It can’t be an accident that in the iconic Christian origin myth about the Garden of Eden, the first significant act was betraying the trust of authority, in that case Yawei, the god, who proceeded to punish the betrayal of his/her trust with mankind’s demotion to mere mortality. This kind of story is repeated often in the world’s compendium of myth. Most of mankind seems to have heeded the lesson because trust in authority has been a default attitude in most places, with the occasional rebel suffering heavy punishment. This kind of trust is often called faith, and for daily living is a useful rule of thumb, a kind of economy which saves on worrying about big unanswerable questions, so that there is time left over to do the grocery shopping and wash the car.

The trouble with trust in authority is that authority so often betrays the trust, or proves not equal to promises. If politics is the art of the possible, its practice inevitably means that somebody’s trust has to be betrayed. But politicians are merely the used car salesmen of governance. We live in an era where trust in whatever we learned at school is likely to become obsolete within a decade. The trust/faith we have in everything from the latest line of medicines to the capacity of computer memory chips, to whether any ‘expert’ really knows what he is talking about … all of this kaleidoscope of types of faith/trust,  we must somehow use to efficiently navigate the modern world.  Everything is conditional. To survive into the future we are forced to place bets on the truth of every kind of knowledge and the usefulness of every kind of artifact, yet somehow remain unsurprised when our bets fail again and again. There is a certain resilience needed to maintain a working level of trust/faith, while retaining the independence to junk whatever doesn’t work out. Not everyone can handle it, and the responses to having faith/trust challenged are richly reflected in turbulent politics.

6. Securing trust in unequal situations


Trust between equals is fairly easy. Trust is far more difficult where one person or organization or country has some kind of power in greater measure than the other. All cultures have rules to ensure that the trust of children is not abused, and there is a biological drive to be protective as well since this is related to the survival of the species. However, clearly all adults are not equal in their talents or abilities, but this situation is so variable that there is wide disagreement about the obligations of the more gifted, or more knowledgeable or more fortunate, and accordingly trust between these parties is often absent. Where cultural rules themselves are changing rapidly, trust is even more difficult to secure. For example this seems to be the present case in gender relationships.

On a personal level, I have found the trust <->talent equation quite difficult to handle for much of my life - not my trust in others, but their trust in me. Let’s take a couple of basic matters: maths & language (as in literacy) ability. My underlying aptitude for maths seems to be so-so. I can get by in an average sort of way, but that’s about it. Socially this is quite a comfortable position to be in, except in the company of mathematicians. They can pity me without risk, and normally I would have little reason to resent them. However when it comes to the symbolic games of natural language and literacy I know without false modesty that I’m up at the very top of the tree. After decades of unexpected resentment from unexpected quarters I’ve come to understand that this is a rather lonely place to be.

Stuff that I have written, or decoded from complex texts, and assumed that my understanding of it was more or less equivalent to the understanding of everyone else, has frequently turned out to be a barrier instead. The barrier to understanding easily becomes a barrier to trust. It is known that almost half the population of even so-called advanced countries cannot read the instructions on grocery or pharmaceutical items. Their struggle is called functional illiteracy. As with maths, there is no magical cut-off point. It is a curve of increasing difficulty for different people. By far the largest part of every human population avoids reading anything that looks “hard” them. With that in mind, when I came to write a doctoral dissertation, I wrote it in the simplest language possible that was consistent with not degrading to treatment of the topic; (this made a couple of examiners uneasy, their cherished status affronted).

The bottom line is that many people have trouble liking a person who is either smarter or more knowledgeable than them in some respect. That is, they can’t trust or like what they don’t understand unless it carries an official stamp of “authority”. One of the worst insults in Australian culture is to be called “a know-all”. In a world of increasing specialization and complexity, the social barriers of trust created by unequal knowledge is fragmenting every culture. What are your effective ways of breaking down this kind of barrier?

7. Clearly our decisions to trust or not trust are influenced by age and experience (although there are old fools as well as young fools). It is notoriously difficult to warn the young against rash actions (e.g. sexting naked selfies to a romance interest of the moment, as 30% of 14 year olds now apparently do). Should we even try to warn them?

8. There is such a thing as general social trust. For 93 years my mother refused to lock the front door, or any door of her house. She grew up in a village where locking doors would be offensive to the community, but lived her adult life in a city. Now I live in a house with double locks on the doors and internal electronic movement sensors. I feel more imprisoned than safer. How do we arrive at a sensible balance of social trust with the communities we live in?

9. Does the ever-growing list of laws improve our sense of social trust, or is it a symptom of a breakdown in trust?

10. In industry, and in school curriculums, there are now detailed lists of “compliance points”. Once the boxes have been ticked, further judgement is apparently not needed. Can these kinds of performance indicators really be trusted? Think of examples.

11. As a child I used to read a comic about a London policeman called PC49. He carried a baton, but otherwise was never armed. He was respected and trusted however. London police were not armed at that time, not that there were fewer criminals. Now police worldwide carry multiple weapons (following TV fashion) and regularly get into fire-fights. Has the police arms race led to an increase in trust?

12. Billions of individuals now migrate mentally for hours every day into electronic media. Many of the other people they seem to interact with are actually electronic images, perhaps never met in the flesh. The trend is accelerating. These electronic partnerships involve much of what passed for normal physical life previously. Jobs are performed, money is made and lost, friendships, enmities and even lovers come and go. The personal reach of electronic partnerships is often planet-wide, yet the subtle cues that led us to trust or not trust are often missing now. What would you put in a guidebook for establishing trust in the age of the internet and smart phone?

13. When I was born in 1945, 97% of Australians came from similar cultural origins, originally Anglo-Celtic. We might not have liked the unspoken social rules much, but we more or less knew what they were, and therefore what and whom to trust. Now over 200 cultures of origin are found in Australia, drawing on every conceivable kind of social tradition. How can we navigate trust in such a fluid cultural environment?

14. In many countries of the world, public trust of any kind is very hard to find. The agents of governments are oppressive, corrupt or violent. The rule of law hardly exists. Doing anything beyond family connections can become hugely complicated and time consuming, requiring favours given or received and multiple bribes, even for things like basic health care. History tells us that violent revolution never changes any of this. What is the most effective mechanism for creating communities of trust in places where trust is almost unknown?


[more to come]


[much more to come]


Reading List*  (other suggestions welcome)

Adonis, James (July 11, 2014 ) "It's a trust issue". [trust in the workplace] Brisbane Times online @

Bedrick, David (Oct 31, 2013) "Building & Repairing Trust: Keys to Sustainable Relationship". Pschology Today website online @

Frisby, Dominic (21 April, 2016) "In proof we trust - Blockchain technology will revolutionise far more than money: it will change your life. Here’s how it actually works". Aeon website online @

Hoffman, Michael (Nov 2, 2013) "Trust no one: Japan’s magazines offer a bleak message". Japan Times online @

IISS (n.d.) "Data Access Indices of Social Development". International Institute of Social Development online @

Klion, David (2 September 2016) "If Russia is trying to hack America, it is not to help Donald Trump win". [re political trust] The Guardian online @

Kurbalija, Jovan (Apr 14, 2015) "In the Internet We Trust: Is There a Need for an Internet Social Contract?"  Huffington Post online @

May, Thor (2015a) "When does security become insecurity?" online @

May, Thor (2015b) "Probing the limits of tolerance" online @

May, Thor (2015c) "Fuzzy Degrees of Freedom – When is the Law a Burden? " online @

May, Thor (2014a) "Fakes, liars, cheats, deceivers, animals in the forest" online @

May, Thor (2014b) "Some Uses and Misuses of Reason" online @

May, Thor (2011) "Snow Flower and The Secret Fan" online @

Ortiz-Ospina, Esteban and Max Roser (various dates) "Trust" [graphical charts of trust within countries. This is a must-see, but be very careful about the limitations of attitude surveys which cannot correct for cultural variations in responses to surveys themselves. e.g. One chart shows the absurd outcome that trust in China is world best, along with Scandanavian countries]. Our World in Data website online @

Pawlik-Kienlen, Laurie (n.d.) "8 Ways to Build Trust in a Relationship". She Blossoms blog online @

Pickett, Kate and Richard Wilkinson (2010) The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone. pub. Penguin. Available from Amazon @  . Review at

Seidman, Gwendolyn (Jul 23, 2014) "Can You Really Trust the People You Meet Online? Some may actually be more honest online than off". Psychology Today online @

Warrell , Margie (Aug 31, 2015) "How To Build High-Trust Relationships". Forbes magazine online @

Wike, Richard and Kathleen Holzwart (15, 2008) "Where Trust is High, Crime and Corruption are Low". [be very careful about the limitations of attitude surveys which cannot correct to cultural variations in responses to surveys themselves. e.g. One chart shows the absurd outcome that trust in China is world best, along with Scandanavian countries]. Our World in Data website online @

Wikipedia (2016) "Trust - emotion". [a very useful summary of trust as researched in different areas of life] Wikipedia online @

Wikipedia (2016) "Trust - disambiguation of the word". Wikipedia online @

Wikiprogress (n.d.) "Trust". [Recommended. This is one of the best summaries of academic studies of trust] Wikiprogress online @

Yates, Reggie (4 May 2015) "Reggie Yates visits Siberia to meet the young girls who are going to extreme lengths to attract the international scouts and make it as fashion models in the West". [a rather intriguing account of an extreme dilemma of trust facing some Siberian teenage girls and their parents] Youtube video online @

Professional bio: Thor May has a core professional interest in cognitive linguistics, at which he has rarely succeeded in making a living. He has also, perhaps fatally in a career sense, cultivated an interest in how things work – people, brains, systems, countries, machines, whatever… In the world of daily employment he has mostly taught English as a foreign language, a stimulating activity though rarely regarded as a profession by the world at large. His PhD dissertation, Language Tangle, dealt with language teaching productivity. Thor has been teaching English to non-native speakers, training teachers and lecturing linguistics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven countries in Oceania and East Asia, mostly with tertiary students, but with a couple of detours to teach secondary students and young children. He has trained teachers in Australia, Fiji and South Korea. In an earlier life, prior to becoming a teacher, he had a decade of finding his way out of working class origins, through unskilled jobs in Australia, New Zealand and finally England (after backpacking across Asia to England in 1972).

The Trust Problem. Some people and some countries have it. Some don't. Why? ©Thor May September 2016


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