It’s hard to be confident in unambiguous usage of “trust”

One of the consistent challenges with researching and writing about trust is separating the sociological and economic and organizational meanings of the word trust from the everyday uses of the term, whether in business or social contexts or in media usage. A front-page article in the July 13 edition of The Washington Post illustrates this problem nicely. The article reports on the results of a recent opinion poll, conducted by the paper in cooperation with ABC news, that indicates that public confidence in President Obama is at a lower level than previously seen during the current administration. The details of the poll or the article are less interesting for this discussion than the vocabulary used in the article and its headlines, both online and in print. While the online version of the article runs under the headline “Confidence in Obama reaches new low,” in the print edition of the paper the headline for the same story was “6 in 10 Americans lack faith in Obama.” The article uses the words “faith” and “confidence” more or less interchangeably, particularly in interpreting response to a poll question that when asked of respondents was worded as follows: “How much confidence do you have in Obama to make the right decisions for the country’s future — a great deal of confidence, a good amount, just some or none at all?” The word faith does not appear in the text of this or any other question used in the poll, and the word trust appears in just one question, which asked “Which political party do you trust to do a better job handling the economy?”

While common definitions of the word faith include “complete confidence,” “confident belief,” and “complete trust or confidence,” and the word is derived from the latin fides (which means “trust” as well as “faith”), the general connotation of faith as distinct from trust or confidence is the lack of evidence or concrete basis for faith. There is substantial variation in the literature about the meaning of the word trust, but consensus exists that trust must have some basis in knowledge, whether that knowledge is related to observed behavior, actions, character, morality, or some combination of these and similar factors. Perhaps members of the population do lack faith in the president’s leadership, but when asking them about their level of confidence in Obama and his decision-making abilities, their responses should be characterized in terms of confidence as well. Different questions used in the poll asked respondents about their confidence in Congress to make good decisions and about the party they most trust to handle the economy. In this context it seems that trust is used in the sense of an expectation of technical competency (Barber, 1983), as is (presumably) the connotation of confidence in the more general question about Congress’ decision-making ability. This parallel usage of trust and confidence is not so much incorrect as it is unfortunate, inasmuch as it continues a legacy (Deutsch, 1960; Coleman, 1990) of failing to distinguish between confidence and trust, despite admonitions from Mayer, Davis, and Schoorman (1995) and various theoretical bases for making such a distinction (Luhmann, 1988; Das & Teng, 1998).


Balz, D., & Cohen, J. (2010, July 13). 6 in 10 Americans lack faith in Obama. The Washington Post, pp. A1, A6.

Barber, B. (1986). The logic and limits of trust. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Coleman, J. S. (1990). Foundations of social theory. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Das, T. K., & Teng, B.-S. (1998). Between trust and control: Developing confidence in partner cooperation in alliances. The Academy of Management Review, 23(3), 491-512.

Deutsch, M. (1960). The effect of motivational orientation upon trust and suspicion. Human Relations, 13, 123-139.

Luhmann, N. (1988). Familiarity, confidence, trust: Problems and alternatives. In D. Gambetta (Ed.), Trust: Making and breaking cooperative relations (pp. 94-107). Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell.

Mayer, R. C., Davis, J. H., & Schoorman, F. D. (1995). An integrative model of organizational trust. The Academy of Management Review, 20(3), 709-734.

One Comment on “It’s hard to be confident in unambiguous usage of “trust”

  1. A while ago when I last raised the use of the word Trust in the Information Security context at an Open Group Security forum meeting. We agreed that the word could ONLY be used when the context was FULLY described. Trust Who or What with What to do What by When, using Which capabilities.

    Trust used alone, without the context described, is made as meaningless as it is by the question of definition highlighted in this post.