This paper contrasts rational trust and the sudden and dramatic actions of irrational trust.
The dominant view of trust is that it is an outcome of a rational evaluation of risk and outcomes. This is what Kramer (1999) refers to as the “trust as a rational choice” perspective (p. 572). Emerson (1962) stated that a trusting relationship is dependent upon what one party feels they can get (or need to get) from another party. Rousseau et al. (1998) similarly defined trust as “a psychological state comprising the intention to accept vulnerability based upon positive expectations of the intentions or behavior of another.” Rational choice trust models stipulate two expectations of trust: that it will increase incrementally with carefully considered positive interactions, and that it will be lost with an unexpected breach of trust. As each positive act continues to increase the perceived probability of the other’s continued trustworthiness, it allows individuals to take bigger and bigger risks.

In the rational choice model, trust development resembles an S-curve, where trust initially increases through small, incremental risks, and begins to increase rapidly as greater risks are taken. After trust grows to a high level and has little room for further development, it begins to level off. The assumptions of the rational choice model are that: Trust develops with iterative reciprocation of parties’ trusting acts; both parties understand the process of trust development, its risks, and they choose to engage in it carefully and deliberately; and, both parties’ expectations and perspectives will be similar.

However, there are trusting actions that appear to be sudden, dramatic, and not incremental, especially early in a relationship (Murnighan, Malhotra, & Weber, 2004). Weber, Malhotra, and Murnighan (2005) provide some common examples of irrational trust such as companies funding expansion before working out the details of the contract, managers delegating important duties to new employees, and individuals investing emotional capital into a new romantic relationship. While trust may be reciprocated, the initial risks are considerable and the trusting actions don’t seem to follow a rational approach.

Previous research on trust development also gives evidence of irrational trust in early relationships. In experiments conducted by Berg, Dickhaut and McCabe (1995) participants were asked to play “the investment game” in which they, as “trustors,” would decide how much of $10 they would give to a completely unknown recipient. It was understood by both parties that the recipient would receive three times the amount the trustor sent over, and that the recipient could then decide how much of this larger amount to send to the trustor. Since the recipient is unknown to the trustor, the rational approach model would suggest that the trustors would act with caution. However, the results of the study showed that on average, trustors sent slightly more than half of their $10 to the recipients, with five of the 32 recipients sending over all of their $10.

The investment game has been conducted by several other researchers, including Pillutla, Malhotra, and Murnighan (2003) who found that the more money trustors sent, the more recipients felt a sense of trust from the trustor. Recipients felt more of an obligation to reciprocate, and they tended to act on those feelings by reciprocating more money. They also found that recipients viewed the trustors’ withholding of any part of the $10 as a sign of lack of trust, which the recipients did not view positively. In fact, these researchers found that sending small or moderate amounts was the worst of all strategies for trustors–even more ineffective at engendering reciprocity than sending nothing at all (Weber, et al., 2005). Another researcher monitored brain activity during “the investment game” and found similar results (Miller, 2005).

This evidence supports the need to consider a model for irrational trust. Such a model need not replace rational models, when trusting relationships follow a more deliberate and incremental development, but would help explain why some parties engage in trusting actions before trust is established. Weber et al. (2005) proposed a model–called the motivated attributions model–predicting what attributions individuals will make that motivate irrational trust, and predict when acts of irrational trust will be effective.

In order for the irrational trust model to work at least one party has to accept the initial risk in the relationship. The reputation of the other party will contribute to the level of acceptable risk. The level of dependency of one party on the other party affects the attributions of trustworthiness given to the other party. The model’s central idea is that one party’s trustworthiness correlates with the extent to which the other party feels dependent upon the first for particular outcomes they feel they can achieve through the relationship. When an individual feels dependent on another for certain expected outcomes, the individual may be less cautious than usual in the face of risk. Relationship dependence is increased between two parties when alternatives for achieving desires outcomes are limited or nonexistent. When feelings of dependence are low, the process of reciprocal trusting actions indicative of the development of a trusting relationship may not begin at all. In addition, fears related to self-awareness (such as damaging their image through trusting acts) may hinder trustors in the trust development process. The motivated attributions model also predicts that impression management concerns will influence the probability of an initial trusting act occurring, as well as the kind of act employed (Weber et al., 2005).

As a mechanism for dealing with the discomfort and lack of relationship symmetry stemming from dependence on another individual or group, Emerson (1962) said that individuals or groups may employ “balancing operations”: withdraw from the relationship, build coalitions, find alternatives, and/or bestow status. The motivated attributions model produces a fifth, cognitive balancing operation: “to conclude that the less dependent party is trustworthy and will not exploit the counterpart’s dependence” (Weber et al., 2005; Kruglanski, 1996; Kunda, 1990). Murray, Holmes, and Griffin (1996) found that when people engage in acts of irrational trust, they often construct idealized images of the other party to deal with the social risks and fears of exploitation inherent in a trusting relationship.

The Weber et al. (2005) model suggests a negative relationship between a party’s “rational” assessments and their feelings of dependence. In addition, the increased dependence on a party causes individuals to place greater focus on attributes that support a positive view of the party, thus promoting the (sometimes irrational) perception that the party is trustworthy (Weber et al., 2005; Fine & Holyfield, 1996; Ruscher & Fiske, 1990). Weber et al. (2005) proposed five additional consequences of dependency increases. Potential trustors will “a) engage in less information search to assess a potential counterpart’s trustworthiness; (b) be more likely to evaluate ambiguous information about the counterpart positively; (c) exaggerate the likelihood that the trusted party will reciprocate; (d) be more likely to engage in initial acts of trust; and (e) be more likely to trust precipitously” (p. 87)


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Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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