For more than 40 years, the founders of the renowned Gottman Institute, John and Julie Gottman, have been studying what makes marriages work. The husband–wife duo has counseled couples of all the racial and ethnic group and social class. 

They’ve seen some clients skillfully solve their problems and others get stuck in conflicts. “I’ve discovered that we can help 70 to 75 % of these couples,” John Gottman, PhD, reports.

What separates the rest of the 25 to 30 percent from the rest? Trust issues. 

A way of measuring the quality of a relationship — between individuals, between groups, and between governments — trust makes life more predictable and working with others easier. “I started to determine their conflicts like a fan opening up, and every region of the fan would be a different area of trust,” he explains. “Can I trust you to be there and listen to me when I’m upset? Can I trust you to choose me over your mother, over your pals? To not take drugs? Can I trust you to not cheat on me and become sexually faithful? Can I trust you to definitely respect me?” 

Many of these are subtle questions of betrayal, but trust can be eroded by minor acts of betrayal with time. 

“Trust is built in very small mo­ments,” says University of Houston social scientist and best-selling author Brené Brown, PhD, LMSW. Research shows that people trust folks who attend funerals, those who ask for help, and bosses who ask how their employees’ relatives are doing. 

One way to build trust is to make the most of what Gottman refers to as “sliding-door” moments — seemingly inconsequential interactions that build or break relationships. For example, one evening at home he wanted to finish reading a novel. “At some point, I put the novel on my bedside and walked in to the bathroom,” Gottman recalls. “As I passed the mirror, I saw my wife’s face in the reflection, and she looked sad, brushing her hair.” 

He had a choice: return to his book or talk to his wife. “I took the comb from her hand and asked her that which was the matter. And she told me why she was sad.”

Sliding-door moments offer opportunities to practice what ­Gottman’s former graduate student Dan Yoshimoto calls “attunement.” His acronym ATTUNE means being aware of someone’s emotions, turning toward the emotion, tolerating two different viewpoints, trying to understand the individual, and responding in non­defensive and empathetic ways.  

Attunement builds mutual respect and exhibits trustworthiness in any kind of relationship. “Trust is the response. Trustworthiness is exactly what we have to judge,” says philosopher and U.K. Parliament member Onora O’Neill in her TED Talk, “What We Don’t Understand About Trust.” She argues that trusting involves judging three things about others: 

  • Are they competent? 
  • Are they honest? 
  • Are they reliable? 

“When we find that a person is competent within the relevant matters, and reliable and honest, we’ll possess a pretty good reason to trust them, because they’ll be trustworthy,” she says.

Hardwired to Trust

Scientists have traced our capability to judge a person’s trustworthiness to particular brain functions. “Experiments around the world have shown that humans are naturally inclined to trust others but don’t always,” says Claremont Graduate University ­neuroeconomist Paul J. Zak, PhD. 

Studies of rodents have found that the neuropeptide oxytocin signals when another animal is protected to approach. This inspired Zak to investigate whether the same was true in humans. His findings established that oxytocin reduces the stress we feel when we interact with others. 

“Oxytocin is a social glue that keeps us baked into communities of humans by motivating us to experience nice,” Zak says. The hormone is related to a second human survival mechanism known as the tend-and-befriend response. 

In addition to driving us to do things for others, the response compels us to connect with others when we’re going through stressful situations such as an illness or the loss of a job. Oxytocin boosts positive risk-taking behaviors, including trusting others. 

When it comes to trust, “the oxytocin response is graded,” he explains. “The more trustworthy someone appears, the greater oxytocin the brain produces and the more motivated we're to interact.”

Along with motivating us to interact with and trust people, oxytocin makes it feel good to be trustworthy. “However, there is high variability in oxytocin production across people,” Zak adds. People with some psychiatric and neurological disorders — such as autism, schizophrenia, and social anxiety disorder — may not experience the feeling of reward the rest of us get from connections with others. 

Studies suggest that giving synthetic oxytocin supplements to individuals with autism, for example, helps them detect social cues a little bit more, and those with schizophrenia become more trusting, thereby increasing support in both groups. (For more on oxytocin and extra tips on making friends with stress, read “Making Friends With Stress: Kelly McGonigal.”)

Safety First

Building trust and trustworthiness goes beyond our brains. “It requires the work of the community,” says Ashanti Branch, MEd, founder and executive director of the Ever Forward Club in Oakland, Calif. “Trust implies that someone recognizes that your truth as well as your story matter and that you have something to state.” 

The former civil engineer and educator founded the organization in 2004 to improve his teaching and to mentor the young men of color he was instructing. “It’s an area where young men can get real and discover their truth is OK,” Branch says. (The audience is prominently featured in the documentary The Mask You Live In, which highlights stories of boys and men struggling for authenticity while negotiating narrow definitions of masculinity.)

Recent studies at Google along with other companies indicate that “psychological safety” — a shared belief that it’s safe to take interpersonal risks — may be a critical factor in building team effectiveness. They are workspaces featuring a high degree of respect and interpersonal trust; people are comfortable being and expressing themselves.

“An environment of psychological safety makes it much simpler for people to speak up with their tentative thoughts,” writes Amy Edmondson, PhD, Harvard Business School’s Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management, who coined the word after discovering that successful teams not just made mistakes but also discussed them.  

“As team members share their ideas, respond respectfully to others’ views, and engage in healthy debate, they establish vital shared expectations about appropriate ways to behave,” she explains.

To develop a culture of psychological safety, Branch begins each meeting at the Ever Forward Club having a check-in to help members get present with other people in the room, as well as “circle time,” when members are able to share something they are experiencing in their lives and get support from other members. 

“The goal is to get young men to see that truths don’t have to match and that when they don’t it doesn’t mean someone is wrong,” he states. “It’s also a method for helping them learn to hold space for one another even if there are conflicting viewpoints.” 

Approaching conflict as collaboration and replacing blame with curiosity increase the brain’s ability to calm the fight-or-flight response and mitigate conflict. When cooler heads prevail, the individual can access the “broaden-and-build mode of positive emotion,” explains University of North Carolina psychology professor Barbara Fredrickson, PhD, author of Positivity. 

She notes that positive emotions,  such as love, hope, and gratitude, broaden our automatic responses and create opportunities for new ways of thinking and acting. That can help us build resources — including resiliency and resourcefulness — that improve our well-being. Positive emotions also foster trust, compassion, and greater social connectedness.

The Ever Forward Club has a 100 percent high school graduation rate, along with a high percentage of its members have gone on to college, trade school, or even the military — outcomes that offer convincing evidence that safe and empathetic environments are breeding grounds for building not just trust but tangible success in life. 

Community Trust

Do you think most people can be trusted? The way you answer this question depends, partly, on where you live.

Levels of “social” or “generalized” trust — a belief within the honesty, integrity, and reliability of others — have been measured since the 1950s. Recent data shows that fewer than 10 percent of Brazilians say they trust others, while in Norway that number exceeds 70 percent. The United States trends in the 30 to 40 percent range. “If trust in others is below about 30 % in a country, then living standards will neglect to grow,” says Zak.

“Trust is a stronger predictor of a nation’s happiness than every other factor except for gross domestic product,” says Dan Buettner, author of The Blue Zones of Happiness: Lessons From the World’s Happiest People. 

A 2021 study of adults in more than 80 countries found that agreeing with the statement “Most people can be trusted” was linked to greater life satisfaction, while mistrust was connected to distress and poor health. Which means living where you think many people aren’t trustworthy isn’t fun or healthy for you. 

“Low trust implies a society where you have to keep an eye over your shoulder; where deals need lawyers instead of handshakes; where you don’t see the point of paying your tax or recycling your rubbish (since you doubt your neighbor is going to do so); and where you employ your cousin or perhaps your brother-in-law to work for you rather than a stranger who'd probably be much better at the job,” explains University of Cambridge lecturer David Halpern, author of Social Capital.

One simple measure of social trust is counting the numbers kept in people’s phones, which indicates how big their social network. Halpern argues that using a larger list increases your social capital because social networking sites help us get through difficult situations and affect our economic status. For instance, the more people you know, the more money you’re likely to earn, he says.

Social networks offer indirect collective benefits. “Communities which have high levels of social capital benefit in many ways,” explains Harvard University public-policy professor Robert Putnam, PhD, author of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of yankee Community. “Their kids do better in school. They have lower crime rates.” 

Both Halpern and Putnam differentiate between “bonding social capital” (the closeness you feel to your friends and family members) and “bridging social capital” (the trust you've in your neighbors; those of a different race, religion, or socioeconomic class; and members of your larger community). “What worries me most about trends in America is the decline in bridging social capital,” Putnam says. 

Bridging the Gaps

Policy changes can be created to close the discrepancies in bridging social capital and improve social trust.

One thing governments can perform is design communities differently, says Buettner. “Cities with well-lit streets, slow speed limits, bike lanes, wide sidewalks lined with trees, and green spaces create opportunities for human interaction, which helps build trust,” he says. “One study showed that simply cleaning up graffiti raised the level of trust and feeling of security in a city.” 

Buettner continues: “Governments may also pay police officers more so they draw from a higher-quality, more educated pool of applicants and spend more money and time on training them.” 

 At the same time, elected officials and those in positions of power have to be held accountable. “There have to be strict laws against corruption,” he adds. 

“Democratic governments depend on trust,” explains Zak. “We trust politicians when other people around us trust them. That's the essence of democracy — crowdsourcing trust.”

Running for school board, joining city leadership committees, and attending business and police forums are great ways to engage with fellow community members while holding elected officials and business leaders responsible. With regards to making our neighborhoods healthier and happier, a little trust can go quite a distance.

How to Be Trustworthy

Trust is something you earn. These behaviors can increase your trustworthiness.

Be transparent and accountable. “Make your intentions known. Be clear about what you want from someone else and what they can expect of your stuff,” neuroeconomist Paul Zak, PhD, advises. “Provide info on the progress toward goals, and when you can't meet your obligations, tell the other party as soon as you know this and create a plan to resolve the difficulties you've caused them.” If you have to interact with someone who has breached your trust, Zak says, a 3rd party can be useful for mediating disputes and future interactions.

Keep confidences. Sharing information that's not yours to share diminishes your trustworthiness using the person whose confidence you betrayed as well as with those you shared the gossip with.

Set and respect boundaries. “There isn't any trust without boundaries,” says social scientist Brené Brown, PhD, LMSW. “I trust you if you're clear about your boundaries and you hold them and you're clear about my boundaries and you respect them.”

Be vulnerable. It might feel risky to open up, but a study of workplaces found that people were more likely to perceive others as trustworthy when they felt they shared common interests, values, or goals.

Have discussions – in person. A survey of employees found that 90 percent of respondents preferred face-to-face communication, however they spoke with their manager in person only 49 percent of the time.

Serve others. “Being kind and generous leads you to definitely perceive others more positively and more charitably,” writes University of California, Riverside, psychology professor Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD, in The How of Happiness. This “fosters a heightened sense of interdependence and cooperation inside your social community.

Show your gratitude. Research has revealed that expressing your thanks can strengthen relationships. One study established that couples who took the time to thank each other felt more positive toward each other and more comfortable expressing concerns regarding their relationship.