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Is It a Jungle Out There? Trust, Distrust and the Construction of Social Reality

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 April 2010

Trudy Govier
University of Calgary


An acquaintance who works with street teens once said to me, “They live in a completely different world.” She did not mean only that they lived downtown and not in the suburbs, slept under bridges and not in beds, ate in soup kitchens instead of restaurants. She meant that street teens experienced a social reality radically different from the reality of those who have lived most of life in a relatively sheltered and stable middle-class environment. They have a different view of other people, of social authority, of human nature, of political and social institutions. As my acquaintance understood it, this difference resulted from experiences at home and school, experiences with adults who were at best negligent, at worst abusive and hostile. Children were not cared for at home, fared poorly at school, then ran from home to the street. The street teens she knew were hostile and despairing and expected others to be the same. A fundamental difference was in the area of trust: these teens lacked trust in family, teachers, peers, police, even those who sought to help them. And apparently for good reason, given the circumstances from which many of them emerged.

Copyright © Canadian Philosophical Association 1994

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1 Michalos, Alex C., “The Impact of Trust on Business, International Security and the Quality of Life,” Journal of Business Ethics, 9 (1990): 619–38CrossRefGoogle Scholar. No paper on trust would be complete without references to Annette Baier's widely read Trust and Antitrust,” Ethics, 96 (1986): 231–60CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Axelrod's, RobertThe Evolution of Cooperation (New York: Basic Books, 1984)Google Scholar. Though themes in these works are not directly addressed here I have, of course, benefited from studying them.

2 I have explored this matter in An Epistemology of Trust,” International Journal of Moral and Social Studies, 8, 2 (1993): 155–74.Google Scholar

3 This is not to say, of course, that trust and distrust are immune to alteration of the basis of evidence. It is just that there is some tendency to interpret consistently with these attitudes; if one trusts another, it will take more episodes, and clearer episodes, of unreliability to lead one to the conclusion that the other is unreliable than it will if one begins with a neutral attitude, or one of distrust.

4 Given the seriousness of some patient-doctor relationships, in such contexts as death or near-death, the impersonality of the relationship is open to criticism. See, for instance, Frank, Arthur W., At the Will of the Body (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991).Google Scholar

5 Thomas, Laurence, Living Morally (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989).Google Scholar

6 Such dealings with complete strangers are not features of village life, a fact which underlies what I call the ‘modernism thesis’—the claim that in traditional peasant societies or in small villages people are less inclined than those in complex modern societies to trust strangers. See Sellerberg, Ann-Mari, “On Modern Confidence,” Ada Sociologica, 25: 3948CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Banfield, Edward C., The Moral Basis of a Backward Society (New York: Free Press, 1958).Google Scholar

7 Thomas, Living Morally.

8 I have explored these problems in Distrust as a Practical Problem,” Journal of Social Philosophy, 23, 1 (1992): 5263.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

9 Zand, Dale, “Trust and Managerial Problem Solving,” Administrative Science Quarterly, 17 (1972): 229–39.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

10 Snyder, Mark, “When Belief Creates Reality,” Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 18 (1984): 2447–2305. The specific examples given are my own.Google Scholar

11 My example. The revisionist history is not necessarily based on falsehood but on different selections, different emphasis, highlighting and interpretation.

12 Snyder, “When Belief Creates Reality”; also noted by H. Horsburgh, J. N. in “The Ethics of Trust,” Philosophical Quarterly, 10 (1960): 343–54.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

13 These connections are not inevitable, as Snyder notes. A person may, for instance, assume responsibility for establishing a warm and open relationship and take special care to make friendly initiatives even when the other party does not seem especially forthcoming.

14 This brings us back to street teens. In part, but only in part, the reason they live in a different world is that they have created it.

15 Michalos, “The Impact of Trust,” p. 626.

18 Rotter, Julian B., “Interpersonal Trust, Trustworthiness and Gullibility,” American Psychologist, 35 (1980): 17.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

19 Cited by Michalos. It is argued that it is not ambition and drive accompanying Type A behaviour that are correlated with early heart disease but rather the hostility and cynicism that are features of some, not all, Type A personalities.

20 These are, of course, not the only alternatives, just the two most relevant to the argument I am developing here.

21 I suspect that this is the case, but the point seems impossible to prove.

22 Michalos, “The Impact of Trust,” p. 631.

23 The Rotter comments pose a challenge, I think, because social scientists are unlikely to have the opportunity to explore citizens' attitudes to government and each other in totalitarian or war-torn societies, or in concentration camps. In a global frame of reference, people studied by social scientists constitute a sample which is, in effect, biased toward the literate, the well fed, the physically and politically secure. One can try to redress this selectivity by studying fiction, autobiography and other non-fictional presentations of life in less secure and safe environments, and by trying to extract from these sources observations about the relevant attitudes.

24 Work on this paper has been supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, to whom I would like to express my thanks.