Among the greatest disappointments of life is having our expectations unfulfilled; not by politicians, or publications that promote false news or weather forecasts, but by those close to us—people in whom we have invested our confidence.

A useful definition of trust is the expectations we have of certain people, and the willingness we have to depend on them when they say or imply that they will take into account our needs and desires. It is a key element without which we couldn’t love, make friends, entrust ourselves into the hands of doctors or the barber, choose leaders, or rely on abstract systems or institutions.

Several psychological theories posit that adults who were cared for affectionately during their childhood tend to trust others more often. To test this hypothesis, an American experiment brought together two categories of people who were invited to write a short story starting from words like mother, child, blanket, smile, sleep, and teddy bear. Those in the first category (adults with secure attachment) thought of a positive dynamic between the characters, while the second group (adults neglected by parents during their childhood) outlined a sad story, based on poor interactions.

In addition to being influenced by primary attachments, education, and family prejudices, trust is also built over time, requiring a series of common experiences in which one proves their good intentions, sympathy, and effort to help when needed.

When do we come to deem a person as “trustworthy”? Usually, it’s after they’ve shown goodwill, honesty, and loyalty to us. But no one and nothing can guarantee that the one we rely on unconditionally will live up to our expectations time and time again. Total trust therefore implies a certain “leap of faith”, a choice we make despite the necessary risks. David DeSteno, a professor at Northeastern University in the US, and author of the book Truth About Trustwrites that “the heart of trust is vulnerability”, because once the door of trust is opened, we could easily be hurt.

As there is still no ‘bad intention detector’ (although studies show that we automatically associate some physical traits with others’ tendency to not be trustworthy), we must handle our openness to the world with caution.

Distrust teaches us to think critically

A well-known story tells how a baker and a farmer agreed to exchange products: the baker received butter from the farmer, and the farmer received bread from the baker. Everything went smoothly until, one day, the baker noticed that the pieces of butter no longer weighed the agreed amount. He got angry and went to the judge to get justice. The judge summoned the defendant and said:

– The baker claims that the butter you sell does not come up to the agreed weight!
– That’s impossible! the farmer replied. I check the weight each time.
– Your weights may not be correct, the judge continued.
– My weights? I have no weights, I have never used them.
– So how do you weigh butter? the judge asked.
– It’s simple, I take bread from the baker, he takes butter from me. A piece of bread weighs a kilogram, so I put the bread on one plate and the butter on the other, to see how much I have to give.

Although trust is the engine of any relationship, regardless of its nature, mistrust also plays an important role in decision making.

In certain situations, doubt helps us to abandon the usual logic and inertia, to resort to “out of the box” thinking.

A series of experiments published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology show that scepticism teaches us to think critically. Among them, the study conducted by Ruth Mayo at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (2004) showed that when exposed to photos with faces that suggested mistrust, participants made atypical word combinations, unlike those exposed to photos associated with higher trust, who made rather predictable associations. Following the same line, a 2008 experiment revealed that subjects animated by feelings of confidence proposed standard solutions to common math problems, while participants facing distrust found original, even unexpected solutions.

Neurologically, trust is associated with the areas of the brain responsible for reward and information processing, and mistrust with the areas responsible for aversion and fear, with fear helping us avoid danger and being directly responsible for protecting our interests.

Everyone makes mistakes

How do we know who is trustworthy and who is not? Certainly, good intentions are not on everyone’s agenda.

It is necessary, first of all, to invest time and patience to see to what extent the people with whom we are negotiating the boundaries of a relationship show understanding, sincerity, and respect. These three are essential attributes. A good clue is the daily behaviour of people. Thus, those who disappoint us in trivial situations are likely to do so in more dire situations.

Occasionally, it isn’t only people’s visible behaviours and verbal statements that serve as evidence of good intentions, but also what is read between the lines—non-verbal language. Based on correlational studies, psychologists found four clues that, during an interaction, signal the lack of credibility of the interlocutor: looking down during the conversation, crossing arms, touching the face, and trembling hands.

Everyday life experience also comes with an important lesson: we cannot receive what we do not offer—at least, not in the long run. Both good deeds and their opposite influence the behaviour of others, turning, like a boomerang, for or against us.

There are also circumstances that may seem to justify a lack of honesty, such as when the doctor assures the family that the grandfather had an easy death; or when someone tells their spouse that there are no more sweets in the house, to help him stick to his diet. However, the excessive use of ‘beauty filters’ on truth can lead us to the extreme of relativizing the truth at every single step.

Unlike ethics experts who regard these “white lies” with a certain degree of understanding, focusing on their ability to protect others, some psychologists condemn lying on the grounds that hindering the truth—regardless of motivation and context—blocks intimacy between people and leads to a loss of trust.

Whether we are talking about altruistic reasons or we are detecting a selfish purpose obscuring reality, one thing is certain: we all make mistakes. Parents, children, spouses, friends, colleagues, or neighbours—anyone can fall into the trap of indifference, neglect, betrayal, infidelity, disinterest in loved ones or, conversely, hyper-protectiveness. Regardless of the form they take, mistakes that shake the trusting commitment of a relationship are hard to tolerate, and instil doubts in anyone’s heart. But even relationships deprived of the gift of trust can survive if those involved want it to survive, take responsibility for the facts, and make the necessary efforts to rebuild.

Because it is so fragile, confidence is easily lost and hard to regain. Sometimes it may never be entirely rebuilt. Therefore, we must think carefully before superficially treating the trust that others offer us with contempt. We must also think before refusing to forgive those who wrong us.

Genia Ruscu has a master’s degree in counselling in the field of social work.