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Trust Substitutes


Explanations > Trust > Trust Substitutes

Rules | Agreements | Monitoring | Consequences | Third parties | And... | See also


What do you do when you don't fully trust someone, yet you have to work with them? This is a question facing many people in work and social situations every day. The answer is that you use trust substitutes, various methods that compensate for the lack of trust and help mitigate the risks.


There are rules of all kinds that specify how we must behave, from social norm through company procedures to national legislation. Whilst rules themselves do not create trust, the do define the boundary between trustworthy and untrustworthy actions.

When we join a new group, whether it is a new employer or moving to a new town, there is a period of anxiety all around as we try to learn the rules and those around us try to teach us the rules.

Rules can be hard and soft. Hard rules must always be obeyed. Soft rules are more open to interpretation. Knowing which is which can be very important.


Similar to rules are agreements. These are explicit contracts between two parties that can range from one person promising to do something for someone else to legally binding contracts between two companies.

Companies use 'performance agreements/objectives' and minuted actions with employees to enable managers to check that their people are doing what is needed (rather than trusting them to do so). If all managers needed to do was to say 'this is what is wanted', then only a few would be needed.


One of the biggest costs of distrust is in the checking and monitoring that one does when others are not fully trusted. This can range from an informal 'keeping an eye on things' through formal and detailed reviews, tests and other assessments.

Entire professions, such as auditing and inspecting, are dedicated to monitoring activities. Many other professions, from management to policing, have monitoring as a major part of the job.


When rules are broken, there are more rules for what happens. For a simple social faux pas, an apology is often all that is required, although serious or consistent transgression can lead to social exclusion. Likewise companies can discipline or sack employees and countries can fine or incarcerate criminals.

Consequences define how hard or soft a rule is. If there are no consequences ever, then the 'rule' is not a rule (and may even bring other rules into disrepute).

It is the fear of consequences that keeps (or is intended to keep) people on track and acting in a trustworthy manner. Fear, however has its own costs and can cause problems such as subtle revenge that can undermine long-term trust.

Third parties

A common substitute for trust is to engage a third party who acts either to create trust or manage the lack of it. Thus, for example warring couples may consult marriage guidance counsellors and industrial disputants accept the judgement of a neutral arbitrator. An important aspect of this is that all distrusting parties trust the third party and may commit beforehand to accepting decisions and outcomes.

Third parties can also act on behalf of one side, such as when you hire an agent or lawyer who is better equipped to spot deception in particular areas. This can lead to a pyramid such as my lawyer duelling with your lawyer, and then these going to a judge to get a final decision.


Here are just a few of the many other ways that are used to compensate for lack of trust or seek to make people more trustworthy.


A very common mitigation strategy is to spend time and effort preparing for problems that may never occur. Thus for example if I suspect my boss may fire me, I will put effort into looking for another job.


If we fear being attacked or dominated in some way, then we will typically put significant effort in defences and power building. A strong form of power is being able to use the power of others. We thus spend time networking and building alliances which we can call on in our hour of need.


Many rituals are intended to force people into particular ways of behaving, from weddings to rites of passage such as joining and graduation ceremonies.

Even when we shake hands we are demonstrating knowledge of a greeting ritual and inviting the other party to comply with social process.


Although carrying weapons is not normal in many contexts in others it is, even in parts of western society, where violence is so common that people feel the need to protect themselves with potentially lethal force.

See also

Conflict articles, Warfare


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