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See the entry in Wikipedia for a description of the concept.

See also, not recently updated but with some good links.

How different scientific domains define trust, see


The Science of Trust

John Clippinger [1] reviews the science confirming we are beings of trust:

These good acts give pleasure, but how it happens that they give us pleasure? Because nature hath implanted in our breasts a love of others, a sense of duty to them, a moral instinct. In short, which prompts us irresistibly to feel and succor their distresses.”

-Thomas Jefferson, 1814

"What makes the discussion of trust today different than in any other time in history, is that that it has become the object of scientific investigation and technological innovation. A variety of “hard science” disciplines, neuroscience, evolutionary biology and psychology and “new sciences” are converging on a scientific understanding of trust. These scientific findings in turn are leading to the design of social network technologies that spontaneously scale to generate trust relationships for a variety of economic and social activities. Not surprisingly, these findings have dramatically changed the scientific basis for our understanding of human nature.

Underlying all political theories are certain “folk” assumptions about human nature. These have been typically framed through appeals to a fictitious past, a “state of nature,” where early humans competed ferociously to advance their self interests. Much of contemporary economic theory and policy is still rooted in such foundation myths. For instance, one of the core principles of economic analysis, the notion of Nash Equilibrium, is based upon the premise that all “rational actors” are primarily motivated through “lucid greed”. As a consequence, significant additional social, economic and legal inducements are required to get people to trust one another. The argument goes that since people are not naturally inclined to trust another, public trust requires “wealth incentives” to motivate risk taking. According to this view, there is no inherent benefit to trusting or participating in a larger social effort. Against this hard-nosed argument of narrow self interest, Thomas Jefferson’s above quoted appeal to people’s “moral instinct” to help one another seems decidedly naïve and Polyannish.

But Science has weighed in on this debate and it seems that Jefferson was right. People are wired for trust. They have the “moral instinct”. It is called oxytocin, a neurotransmitter located in the hypothalamus that rewards acts of trust and social attachment. Contrary to the expectations of free market economics, evolution has wired people to feel better when they trust and help one another. In one sense trust is its own reward But in another sense, public trust is the way a group - a species - ensures its survival. Trust in this sense creates more effective collective and coordinated action, not only by reducing transaction costs, but selecting for those joint behaviors that exploit all the resources of a group.

So strong is the survival premium of people NOT endlessly competing with one another, (though competition certainly has its place,) that human beings have evolved “mirror neurons” that enable them to understand what others are experiencing, in short, to empathize with one another. Although people have a natural propensity to trust, trust is not necessarily ‘blind”. It requires transparency, accountability and credible ways of signaling success. Even though evolution has recognized the importance of trust by encoding it in many neural mechanisms, there still have to be certain types of “social scaffolding” in order for these innate social mechanisms of trust to function.

According to evolutionary psychologists and biologists, the human brain evolved many highly sophisticated social exchange algorithms for interpreting, signaling, and coordinating human interactions. It turns out that human beings evolved as a social species - not as atomic individuals, and hence, evolved joint innate mechanisms for shared behaviors and experiences. The reason that markets work is not becauseof any individual capacity for reflecting on rational self interest, (”lucid greed”) but rather because of biologically encoded, preconscious mechanisms for joint social exchange and coordination. In other words, pricing mechanisms and exchange contracts are the social scaffoldings that trigger people’s innate propensity to trust and exchange goods. Neurosciences and several neuro-economic experiments have shown that the principal mental processes involved in economic activities are not conscious but preconscious, and hence, not reflective, utility maximizing nor principally self-interested.

The neurosciences continue to make extraordinary progress in understanding the specific neural pathways involved in human interaction and trust building. Experiments have demonstrated that there are specific neural mechanisms for trust - (detecting cheaters, sense of fairness, shame, fairness, etc.) and they have a high degree of social fitness value. Similarly, evolutionary biology and new branches of economics, neuro-economics and evolutionary economics, have documented the conditions under which certain social network roles and modes of interaction increase social trust, and thereby further overall economic fitness.

The science of trust is proceeding on two fronts. The neurosciences are mapping the mechanisms of trust in the brain and the evolutionary sciences (biology, psychology, sociology and economics) showing why such trust mechanisms evolved within groups and how they are necessary to create more fit and adaptive forms of human organization. Evolutionary biology and game theory are providing the basis for assessing which forms of social exchange are the more “evolutionary stable strategies”, thereby providing criteria to assess different approaches to public trust.

The implications for public policy of the findings of the science of trust are far reaching and profound. For the first time, political assumptions about human nature can be grounded in the hard sciences, which in turn, can provide the basis for leveraging that understanding to create more human, viable, and adaptive social and economic institutions.

Francis Fukuyama, the noted author of a major book on trust and economic well being, argued that “spontaneous sociability” underpinned the success of modern economies.” Recent multi-national studies on trust and economic well being have born out Fukuyama’s insights. They have shown that high trust societies have significantly lower incidents of crime and greater economic prosperity. Yet as long as trust is treated as a moral virtue, or as a cultural intangible, it will still be difficult, if not impossible to shape through policy. But if trust were something that Science can understand, and technologies can enhance, then it becomes a different ballgame altogether. Then trust can be approached as a malleable human artifact, which like health, longevity or income equity can be quantified and directly affected by technological and policy interventions." (

Technologies of Trust

John Clippinger [2]:

"According to the evolutionary anthropologist, Robin Dunbar, the human brain evolved to accommodate the complexities of social interaction and that it has reached an upper limit of 150 to 200 individuals that it can keep track off. Beyond that limit, the human brain can’t compute all the debits and credits, obligations, and protocols of social exchanges, and as a result confusion, distrust, and hierarchy can set in.

Technology may offer an important boost to public trust by augmenting the human capacity for social computation thereby making it possible to scale trust to include not just hundreds, but thousands and even millions of participants. The Internet from its inception was designed on the principle of gift exchange and it has grown to offer new forms of social exchange and work that were thought totally impossible just a decade ago. In addition to the well documented successes of the Open Source Movement, the success of eBay is perhaps the most powerful “existence proof” of the power and scalability of trust. With the exception of eBay founder, Pierre Omidyar, few economists thought that buyers and sellers were sufficiently predisposed to trust one another that they would undertake significant transactions with strangers over the Internet. Yet through trial and error and well honed intuitions about human nature, Omidyar recognized that given sufficient transparency, a credible system of ratings, and community accountability and enforcement, spontaneous communities of trust would self-organize to enable significant economic transactions. In eBay’s case, $12 billion in revenues in 2002." (

Policies of Trust

John Clippinger [3]:

"As the sciences of trust begin to reveal the role and dimension of trust in social organization, the public policy and education challenge becomes how to translate this often esoteric knowledge into actionable public discourse. The first task is educational, to bring these findings to the attention of those in government, business, the non profit sector and academia and derive the implications of these findings for these different constituencies. It is our view that the implications of the science and technologies of trust will be so far reaching as to entail a rethinking of many of the key premises and approaches to public policy; in effect, bringing to an end the anecdotal thinking of the Enlightenment and ushering in a more rigorous scientific understanding that will have political and institutional implications for generations to come. Rather than pitting “free markets” against the “heavy hand” of top down government regulation, a trust approach offers a third alternative, one that creates a “context of trust” whereby conditions of transparency, mutuality and accountability trigger innate self-organizing social exchange processes that in turn catalyze Fukuyama’s spontaneous sociability." (


Dirk Baur et al.:

"In economic exchanges there are three kinds of trust: institutions-based, characteristic-based, and process-based.

Institutions-based trust comes from the involvement of a central authority. Think of a commercial bank (and a government insuring deposits in that bank), as in the previous example.

Characteristic-based trust is the trust we have in people mostly because they represent some sort of similarity to us, or show admirable features or values that warrant trust. For example, you are more likely to trust someone from the area where you grew up than someone from elsewhere; you might also trust someone with a similar taste in music, or who simply embodies what you value in life.

Process-based trust arises when previous experiences suggest that the inputs by one party will be predictably reciprocated. This trust often evolves into social micro-rules or norms. For example, most people would generally trust that if they do not harm a person, that person will also not harm them. Likewise, one would trust that others will answer when asked a question.

It follows that trust can be destroyed and lost if the central authority fails, the person you trusted fails, or the process you trusted fails." (

Aspects of Trust

Trustcloud has an interesting graphic summarizing the aspects of trust [4] at

Levels of Trust

Albert Cañigueral:

First level of trust: closed networks

Not everybody is ready to share with complete strangers. A number of projects address this issue by allowing users to create closed networks where matching their needs and building trust are easier to manage.

For example:

For sharing a ride (Amovens in Spain, Zimride in US, etc.) allow companies, universities, and even events to create local closed groups. NeighborGoods allow individuals to start a closed sharing group for as little as $6 a month.

Second level of trust: The social networks component

A lot of people are already building digital profiles on social networks like Facebook and Twitter. An additional reputation mechanism implemented by various projects is to connect users’ profiles with their profiles on social networks, so you can know more about who it is exactly you’re about to rent your house to.

MovoMovo (P2P car rental in Spain) has introduced their own "Social Trust Rank", an algorithm of initial social reputation. It works based on your Facebook account and you can add your Twitter or blog too. For example, newly created or very low activity accounts will be penalized with a low “Social Trust Rank.”

Feedback systems and peer-police

“eBay has proved how the trust we typically form face-to-face can be built and assigned online by creating the grandfather of reputation systems, the Feedback Forum. After any transaction, buyers and sellers can rate each other using a simple points system (1,0,-1). Once users reach a certain number of points, they receive a star attached to their screen name, indicating their trustworthiness. The "silver shooting star" indicates the highest rating.

With around 98 to 99 percent of trades receiving positive rating the eBay approach seems to work and has been copied and adapted to a lot of other projects. One of the most common complaints with eBay is the use of nicknames instead of real names, and this is where the use of social network profiles can be a handy extra in the reputation system.

CouchSurfing, with more than 3 million users from all over the world, mainly works with a reference system. People can vouch for each other (under certain strict conditions) and even become verified (after you make a financial contribution to support CouchSurfing). In addition, the more complete the profile, the more likely it is the user will be able to get a couch. For those who offer a couch there is no obligation to accept couching requests, but it is expected that the user will answer (yes/no/maybe) the received requests. Your profile shows the percentage of requests you have answered.”

Similar approaches and measures has been adopted by many other projects as, for example: Airbnb, TaskRabbits or Communitae (P2P lending site in Spain).

Being able to create a sense of community among the users of the system also provides an extra degree of trust in the system and among peers. People who rent a car from Hertz neither have any sense of community, nor any expectations on other users’ behavior. On the other hand, people using ZipCar call themselves Zipsters and that alone makes an important psychological difference when using the car rental service. “ (


Trust in Peers is replacing trust in institutions

From the Edelman Trust Barometer, 2006:

"“The most profound finding of the 2006 Edelman Trust Barometer is that in six of the 11 countries surveyed, the “person like yourself or your peer" is seen as the most credible spokesperson about a company and among the top three spokespeople in every country surveyed. This has advanced steadily over the past three years.

In the US, for example, the “person like yourself or your peer" was only trusted by 22% of respondents as recently as 2003, while in this year’s study, 68% of respondents said they trusted a peer. Contrast that to the CEO, who ranks in the bottom half of credible sources in all countries, at 28% trust in the US, near the level of lawyers and legislators. In China, the “person like yourself or your peer" is trusted by 54% of respondents, compared to the next highest spokesperson, a doctor, at 43%.

Meanwhile, “friends and family" and “colleagues" rank as two of the three most credible sources for information about a company, just behind articles in business magazines. Again, in the US, the “colleagues" number has jumped from 38% in 2003 to 56% in 2006. We facilitated the revolt by employees of Morgan Stanley against top management, soliciting opinions through their website, which then led to stories in traditional media.

Why the change, with increased reliance on those you know? The Edelman Trust Barometer shows clearly the deep trust void facing traditional institutions including business, government, and the media." (

On the Decline of Trust

"Full Survey: Trust in Governments, Corporations and Global Institutions Continues to Decline

Since signaling the importance of trust in world affairs, the World Economic Forum has been monitoring public trust levels through a bi-annual global public opinion poll conducted by GlobeScan Incorporated. The latest findings from the poll show that trust in a range of institutions has dropped significantly since January 2004 to levels not seen since the months following the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001. The poll also reveals that public trust in national governments and the United Nations has fallen the most over the past two years.

The same set of questions has been put to representative samples of citizens around the world since January 2001. The major findings from this year’s poll are:

  • Public trust levels in national governments, the United Nations and global companies are now at their lowest since tracking began in January 2001.
  • Since 2004, trust in government has declined by statistically significant margins in 12 of the 16 countries for which tracking is available. The Russian government is the only exception, enjoying continuously increasing trust from its citizens since 2001.
  • The United Nations, while continuing to receive higher trust levels than other institutions, has experienced a significant decline in trust from 2004 levels in 12 of 17 tracking countries, suggesting an impact from the scandal over the Oil for Food Program.
  • Public trust in companies has also eroded over the last two years. After recovering trust in 2004 to pre-Enron levels, trust has since declined for both large national companies and for global companies. Trust in global companies is now at its lowest level since tracking began.
  • NGOs remain the leaders in trust, but they also have to contend with decline. In 10 of 17 countries for which data is available, trust in NGOs has fallen since 2004, in some cases sharply (e.g., Brazil, India and South Korea).

These findings are based on a global public opinion poll involving a total of 20,791 interviews with citizens across 20 countries (n = 1,000 in most countries), conducted between June and August 2005 by respected research institutes in each participating country under the leadership of GlobeScan." (cited here:


  1. TrustLet is a collaborative research project on Trust Metrics
  2. The infoliberalism project includes a p2p trust system that aims to form the base of a new political and economic order.

Building an open trust infrastructure through Open Badges

Serge Ravet:

"Open Badges ( is a 2011 initiative of the Mozilla Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation to address the issue of recognition of informal learning. An Open Badge is a picture in which are 'baked' metadata, in particular: who are the issuer and the earner, what are the awarding criteria and the supporting evidence. As "criterion-based-trust statements" Open Badges can be combined to establish chains and networks of trust, a property exploited by the Open Badge Passport initiative ( to establish an Open Trust Infrastructure, thus creating the conditions for the emergence of a new generation of services based on Open Personal Data, under the full control of their owners, individuals and communities." (via email, August 2015)

Nate Otto:

"We want to see these values reflected in the software:

  • Badges are visible declarations of trust
  • Anyone can participate in the badge ecosystem trust network as they earn badges, issue badges and consume badges."


More Information

  1. See our entry on Trust Metrics; also: Trust Metrics Evaluation Project wiki.
  2. A formula for calculating Aggregated Trust
  3. Web of Trust

Recommended by Robert Ryan:

"The causal relations between trust and the world need not be linearly conceived. Let me refer you all to a recent paper on trust as just such a construct with outcomes reminiscent of and contingent to the system within which it operates.

  • Bill McEvily. (2011). Reorganizing the Boundaries of Trust: From Discrete Alternatives to Hybrid Forms; Organization Science; 2011....Bill is a renowned trust expert.
  • Here is another of his:" Trust as an Organizing Principle; With: Vincenzo Perrone, Aks Zaheer; Organization Science; Issue: 14; 2003; Pages: 91-103

Research on Trust

  • Two dimensions of reputation: designing a trust-and-recognition-enhancing reputation system for an online community (Juho Makkonen, 2010 - Master's thesis, Aalto University - also explore online communities not related to sharing economy, but the main case example is kassi/sharetribe)

Trust Technologies

  1. The Global Trust Center: Enabling trust in the digital world
  2. Trust-forum: a project of web-based communication system that aims to include a web of trust between servers based on trust declarations between users.
  3. Perspectives: A system and corresponding Firefox extension for authentication based on multi-path routing consistency over time.
  4. Semantic Web Trust and Security Resource Guide

Key Book to Read

  • Book: Trust: Making and Breaking Cooperative Relations, edited by Diego Gambetta. Basil Blackwell, 1988, online in full-text format