Roy J. Lewicki
Edward C. Tomlinson

December 2003

Distrust- Overview

Distrust is the confident expectation that another individual's motives, intentions, and behaviors are sinister and harmful to one's own interests. In interdependent relationships, this often entails a sense of fear and anticipation of discomfort or danger. Distrust naturally prompts us to take steps that reduce our vulnerability in an attempt to protect our interests. Accordingly, our distrust of others is likely to evoke a competitive (as opposed to cooperative) orientation that stimulates and exacerbates conflict. Distrust has also been linked to lower job satisfaction, commitment, and motivation.

Due to its destructive potential, we proceed to review the origins and development of distrust to lend insight into the phenomenon of distrust and how it can be managed more effectively.

Origins and Development of Distrust

Mohammed Abu-Nimer discusses the suspicion Muslims have about Northern and Western peacebuilders, which derives from colonization and occupation.

Distrust may arise due to differences in group membership: individuals identify and are positively attached to their in-groups, yet assign negative stereotypes to out-group members and may view them with suspicion and hostility. Distrust can also arise directly as the result of personal experiences among individuals, such as when one person breaks a promise to another. Distrust is likely to increase with the magnitude of the violation, the number of past violations, and the perception that the offender intended to commit the violation. (Also see the section on violated expectations in the trust essay.)

Once in place, distrust forms a powerful frame on subsequent events in the relationship, such that even good-faith efforts by the offender to restore the relationship are met with skepticism and suspicion. The result is a "self-fulfilling prophecy," where every move the other person makes is interpreted as additional evidence that justifies an initial decision to distrust him/her. This distrust not only inhibits cooperation in the relationship, but also may result in retaliation that causes the conflict to escalate. When the other person reciprocates this sentiment, there is mutual distrust that further fuels the escalation of conflict.

Our review will focus on the distinction between functional and dysfunctional distrust, as well as the levels of distrust in relationships.

Functional versus Dysfunctional Distrust

Functional distrust. Although distrust has generally been regarded as patently harmful, it should be acknowledged that there are potentially valuable benefits of some distrust. All of us have had experiences where we misjudged another as credible and trustworthy, only to be exploited. Hence, distrust can be a valuable mechanism that prevents us from falling prey to a naive view of other people that allows us to be blind to clues of their untrustworthiness (and thus making us willing co-conspirators to our own exploitation). A certain level of distrust is vital to preventing excessive group cohesion that precludes sound decision making. In addition, a certain amount of distrust allows us to set boundaries around another's behavior in a way that limits their freedom yet permits functional interaction (so, for example, I might trust my friend to walk my dog, but not trust them with a key to my house that would let them enter any time they choose). Vigilance of another, periodic monitoring of their behavior, and formal contracts are all reasonable and appropriate ways to ensure compliance and maintain "appropriate boundaries" in a relationship. It also may be appropriate to strictly compartmentalize and set boundaries in certain relationships, so that we minimize the areas in which one becomes vulnerable to another. In short, it is possible (and even advisable) to have a 'healthy dose' of distrust, particularly with people whom we do not know well.

Dysfunctional distrust. However, distrust can lead to adverse effects as well. As noted earlier, distrust is associated with a lack of cooperation, lower satisfaction and commitment, and possibly even retribution and actively hostile behavior. Taken to its extreme, distrust can give rise to paranoid cognitions -- false or exaggerated cognitions that one is subject to malevolent treatment by others.[1] Such perceptions drive individuals to the point of hypervigilance (excessively trying to make sense of every action the other person takes) and rumination (brooding or stewing on the meaning of the other person's behavior and their intentions), resulting in a faulty diagnosis about whether the other can be trusted or not. Distrust leads the parties to reduce their willingness to share information and engage in problem solving in conflict situations, and hence to distributive bargaining approaches with the other party, an approach that usually overlooks integrative, value-creating opportunities. Distrust can also cause conflicts to escalate to the point of intractability, as positions harden and the parties become increasingly reluctant to yield concessions. The negative emotions that emerge with distrust---fear, suspicion and anger--cause the trustor to vilify and demonize the other party, and can even produce paranoid cognitions. This view becomes especially damaging when the parties use these perspectives of each other to justify retaliatory actions that cause the conflict to escalate out of control.

Communication becomes less effective as a means of extricating the parties from the conflict, as messages are assumed to be distorted or deceptive rather than honest and candid. Hence, even bona-fide opportunities to create integrative agreements and/or heal the relationship are ignored or discounted.

Levels of distrust development

Returning to our earlier distinction between calculus- and identification-based levels of trust, we can draw the same distinction between calculus-based distrust (CBD) and identification-based distrust (IBD).

CBD is confident negative expectations of another's conduct grounded in impersonal, arms-length transactions where the overall costs of maintaining trust are expected to outweigh the benefits of maintaining trust. We expect that in any encounter with the other, the costs will outweigh the benefits.

IBD is confident negative expectations of another's conduct grounded in perceived incompatibility of closely-held values, dissimilar or competing goals, and/or a negative emotional attachment. We expect that we have little in common with the other, and that in fact the other may be a committed adversary who is out to do us in.

Violated Expectations

We recognize that even in situations involving distrust, expectations can be violated. In this case, however, we are concerned with situations in which we have confident negative expectations about the other, and receive information that does not conform to those negative expectations. Thus, we get information that another is trustworthy when we don't expect to be able to trust them.

Expecting trust and having it violated is likely to have more psychological impact than expecting distrust and experiencing trustworthiness. This is because negative information weighs more heavily in human judgment; thus, experiencing disconfirmed expectations in distrust is not as powerful, relatively speaking, as expecting trust and getting untrustworthy actions. In addition, once distrust is activated, it forms a heavy shadow of suspicion---or even paranoia, as noted above--that may not necessarily be allayed by subsequent good behavior. Because distrust has been operating, any subsequent acts of trustworthiness may be viewed with extreme suspicion and cynicism-- the other party may simply be setting us up for exploitation!

But if disconfirming evidence is compelling, significant enough, and/or becomes a frequent occurrence, our perceptions of the other may result in lower distrust and possibly higher trust. For example, research has indicated that repeated, close contact with the other party can alter the negative views and assumptions we have of them (especially when the context changes to provide both parties with shared, superordinate goals).

Tempering Distrust

As the foregoing discussion has noted, reducing distrust is an extremely difficult task. In addition, it is not always appropriate. Despite earlier, normative notions that trust is always good and distrust is always bad, we recognize that distrust has its proper time and place. Accordingly, we are primarily concerned with how to temper distrust: that is, how to manage its presence in a manner that is appropriate to the context. Just as before, we highlight that context in terms of the distinction in levels of distrust.

Tempering CBD

In CBD relationships, the focus is on a transactional exchange and calculations of the other's cost-benefit assessment of behaving in a trustworthy/untrustworthy manner. This tangible focus implies that it is necessary to construct boundaries that limit the degree of interdependence and vulnerability inherent in the transaction. Thus, a trustor has to take care that trust extended in one sector of a relationship---e.g., trusting my neighbor to walk my dog---does not get automatically extended to other sectors---e.g., trusting my neighbor with a key to my house. In addition, systems that allow for monitoring and enforcement help ensure that distrust can be managed in areas that do contain vulnerability (for example, limited access for joint venture research scientists employed by a competitor). It is essential for the parties to try to establish open communication to clarify their objectives, so both sides can try to ascertain the boundaries that merit trust versus distrust. Finally, CBD can be managed by cultivating the potential for alternative relationships to satisfy interests. When one has alternative ways to get one's needs met, the need to trust a specific other decreases. This limits the degree of dependence on someone who may violate trust.

Tempering IBD

IBD relationships denote incompatible values and goals, and also a negative emotional attachment to the other. Distrust is felt viscerally (in the gut) as much as cognitively (in the head). In most cases, we would choose to separate ourselves from people with whom we have strong IBD, and minimize both our interaction with them and our dependence on them. However, there are times when we must continue relationships with these people. There are several ways to cope with this situation. First, our differences with this person may be more imagined than real. Efforts to talk out our differences, often with the help of a third party who can facilitate communications, may help the parties realize their commonalities. However, if this is not effective, the parties will need to identify those specific areas where they need to work together, and 'bound' their interactions with each other so that discussions around those issues are careful, controlled, and above board. The parties may also try to work out their differences in other key areas of contention, but if the distrust between them is strong and longstanding, such efforts are unlikely to be productive.

Practical Implications for Managing Dysfunctional Distrust

Maria Volpe discusses how negative images of "the other" can present long-standing obstacles to conflict resolution, making conflicts intractable.

Breaking the cycle of dysfunctional distrust is a complex and challenging endeavor that begins with identification and analysis of root causes. Properly analyzing the source of distrust is critical because the originating events and circumstances may be significantly different from the ways the parties understand and express their differences, and because this analysis is the foundation for an effective solution. These processes can occur between individuals, in the media, and through education.

What Individuals Can Do

While the presence of distrust is usually obvious, it may not always be apparent when distrust has become more dysfunctional than beneficial. Thus, the first step in managing dysfunctional distrust is for the parties to recognize its presence. Some common indicators may include: (a) persistent suspicion about the other's motives and intentions; (b) chronic denial of benefits from cooperation and continued interdependence, based on over-generalizing or overestimating the degree of distrust, (c) need to closely monitor the other's actions, and (d) unwillingness to engage in risks that might lead to opportunities for productive collaboration. If the parties cannot recognize or understand these symptoms, third party assistance may also be helpful. Third party assistance may take the form of mediation or arbitration; third party tactics may assist the parties in achieving a deeper understanding of the substance of the conflict, or in devising a process to manage the distrust more effectively.

Identification of distrust should be followed by an analysis of its origins. Again, the assistance of a discovery or questioning process by neutral third party can help identify the source of distrust, which may stem from a variety of causes: the greed of one of the parties, an excessively competitive orientation of one of the parties, or a reaction to unfair treatment by one of the parties. In the latter case, for example, A may commit some type of transgression against B in response to a perceived injustice. If B does not recognize and label this behavior accurately, it will be viewed as a reason for B to distrust A, and hence deny B the opportunity to correct the source of the distrust. Instead of the distrust being resolved, it is further fueled by misperception and miscommunication in a manner that leads to conflict escalation.

If a third party is unavailable, the parties may attempt perspective taking by temporarily stepping out of their role to consider how the other party views the conflict. This approach can create the empathy necessary to overcome any distorted perceptions that vilify the other party, and pave the way for distrust reducing and trust building activities.

What the Media Can Do

Messages by the media can also assist in revealing instances where distrust has become dysfunctional. News reports can provide valuable insight into how conflicts are viewed and interpreted by third parties. To the extent that reporting is objective, thorough, and unbiased, the parties to a conflict can avail themselves of the advantages of a third party mentioned above. In addition, how news reports frame the conflict may have a profound impact on how the conflict is interpreted. If the conflict is framed so as to enhance the distrust of one or both groups, the media is serving a dysfunctional role. Since some media prefer to sensationalize and over-dramatize conflict and distrust in order to attract readers/viewers, the media can play an active role in either reducing or increasing distrust in a particular dispute.

Thorough news reporting can also provide a detailed public record that traces a complete history of how the dysfunctional distrust began and escalated. Analysis of these reports may fill in the gaps omitted by the selective perception of biased conflict participants or those who have received only limited and filtered information. Consider the earlier example of distrust stimulated as a reaction to a perceived injustice by the other party. Without the benefit of a complete transcript or detailed narrative of how distrust evolved, the precipitating cause itself may be overlooked by at least one of the parties and prevent an effective resolution.

What the Educational System Can Do

Educational institutions can also provide a critical forum to train individuals in ways to recognize and respond to distrust effectively. Formal instruction in negotiation and conflict resolution skills can lead to greater acceptance of diverse (and distrusted) populations, while combating the harmful effects of prejudice and stereotyping. Educational institutions can also employ the use of dialogue groups, problem-solving workshops, and role playing activities to sensitize individuals to the advantages of integrative bargaining, the issues surrounding trust and distrust in relationships, and the awareness of when integrative potential is left untapped due to dysfunctional distrust.

The same educational tools may allow individuals to develop workshops and seminars to objectively analyze how distrust is activated and perpetuated in relationships. Role-plays that begin with distrustful parties discussing the basis of their distrust can then refocus their efforts by assigning the parties to work together to achieve a common, superordinate goal. These types of learning events can enhance the ability of the individuals to analyze the underlying reasons for the conflict (which may be very different from their original assumptions), while minimizing the role of negative emotions that may cloud sound judgment.

Practical Implications for Managing Levels of Distrust

What Individuals Can Do

At the individual level, perhaps the most damaging aspect of extreme and/or chronic distrust is the psychological impact that produces paranoid thoughts. Thus, an important step for parties trapped in distrust is to regain a sense of control over their thinking and their fear by exploring and cultivating other relationships in the pursuit of their needs. Although this is not always possible, this strategy can help alleviate the anxiety that comes with only being able to meet one's needs by way of a distrustful adversary, and reduces the sense of vulnerability one feels from a trust violation on any particular encounter with a distrusted other.

Aside from cultivating power from the creation of alternatives, individuals can employ the principles of GRIT (Graduated and Reciprocated Initiatives in Tension Reduction) model. Proposed originally by psychologist Charles Osgood as a strategy to reduce dysfunctional distrust between the United States and Soviet Union during the cold war, GRIT consists of a series of steps intended to correct biased and distorted perceptions, reduce tension, and cultivate an atmosphere of mutual trust that will enable a more cooperative bargaining approach.[2] While this model has received research support for many of its propositions, public pressure via neutral third parties can further enhance its effectiveness.[3]

Essentially, an arms race in reverse, GRIT calls for the initiating party to make a general statement indicating a desire to de-escalate the conflict and rebuild trust. Once this framework is established, specific, unconditional, unilateral initiatives can be announced and performed in a manner that permits verification, with some form of reciprocated action invited from the other, but not demanded. Gradual and unilateral initiatives at tension reduction should continue even if they are not immediately reciprocated by the other. Distrust will subside as the other party comes to see the consistency between your benevolent stated intentions and your subsequent actions (consistency is a key element of trust building). Moreover, persistent unilateral initiatives by the actor convey one's sincerity and an unwillingness to act manipulatively.

However, it is important to choose unilateral initiatives that are sufficiently 'trusting' enough to be significant (that is, to make the other believe you are truly incurring some risk of your own) without leaving yourself in an unduly vulnerable position. In this vein, it is important for the actor to retain some retaliatory capacity (i.e., to retain one's own ability to mount a defense should it become necessary, but also to build one's reputation for trustworthiness by exposing vulnerability to the other.). In addition, individuals should respond in kind to any trusting actions initiated by the other party, matching their retaliation precisely with retaliation of your own but also matching their acts of trust with your own acts of conciliation.

GRIT is thought to be an effective strategy for reducing distrust among individuals, organizations and nations because it produces congruence between an individual's words and subsequent actions, and builds credibility to one's stated intentions of benevolence. Hopefully, this leads to a spiral of de-escalation as both parties can now act in their collective self-interest to reduce distrust and create an environment that is conducive to productive negotiations.

A similar but competing strategy is explained by game theorist Richard Axelrod, and referred to as a 'tit-for-tat' strategy.[4] Axelrod studied strategies that players could use to induce cooperative behavior in another player, using simple experimental games such as Prisoner's Dilemma. The 'tit-for-tat' strategy can best be described as a conditionally benevolent strategy, where one's cooperation is contingent on the cooperation of the other party. Such an approach is fair because it reacts the same to both acts of escalation and conciliation from the other party. The strategy is forgiving in that it immediately returns to cooperation after the counterpart has done so, and it produces a level of consistency that builds trust. Research has shown that this 'tit for tat' strategy produces the greatest amount of cooperative behavior (compared to other game strategies) in the long run. However, it differs from GRIT in that it is reactive to the other's strategy, while GRIT is proactive and initiates trust. 'Tit for tat' also does not prescribe any other conciliatory behavior in the absence of reciprocation.

Depending on the level of distrust in the relationship, there are other additional guidelines that can be followed to reduce distrust. We suggest the following:

  • Provide for sufficient deterrence (punishments for violating the relationship contract). A party will be less likely to disrupt the trust building process to the extent that the other party has some power over the actor. One way that other party can maintain power is by being able to communicate about the potential violator's reputation. When individuals value their reputation, they are sensitive to the risk of adverse publicity regarding their trustworthiness, and hence may be less likely to violate trust.
  • Cultivate attractive alternatives to satisfy your interests. Another way of gaining power is to cultivate alternative relationships to satisfy our interests. If we can have our needs met by others, we do not need the relationship with the potential trust violator. Having other ways to get our needs met reduces our vulnerability, and hence the risks we might have to take by continuing to work with the other. This strategy of generating other options is often referred to as one's Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA), which provides a plan to fall back on if an agreement cannot be reached with the other party in a conflict.
  • Create valid expectations. Parties should actively discuss and manage the other's perceptions and expectations of what has been agreed to, and who is expected to follow through with specific actions. Eliminate any ambiguity about expectations, and make sure to commit and follow through.
  • Agree to procedures for monitoring whether the other is following through. This allows the parties to verify each other's actions to ensure that expectations are being met.
  • Increase the other's awareness of how their behavior is viewed by others. Even dishonest people value a reputation for honesty. When others know they are being watched (even outside of the focal transaction), and when they believe others may distrust them as well, they may gain added incentive to behave in a more trustworthy fashion.

In IBD relationships, the following suggestion may also be helpful:

  • Openly acknowledge key areas of contention. Avoid situations that make strong areas of identification-based distrust salient. If you know that repeatedly discussing areas of clear ideological disagreement only makes the problem worse, stay away from discussing that topic! Attempt to find a way to "agree to disagree."

What the Media Can Do

Effective distrust reduction hinges on accurate and thorough information so both parties can see the conflict more objectively. The media can help by striving to investigate and document key points in the evolution of a conflict, and presenting reports in an unbiased, objective fashion. Sensationalist reports giving heavy attention to extremists are not likely to be helpful, and may actually increase the spiral of distrust and conflict. In addition, journalists may have access to similar conflicts that have been successfully resolved, and reporting on these comparison stories may provide the conflicting parties with hope and concrete guidance from an analogous situation.

Useful suggestions are also available in the essay on stereotypes .

What the Educational System Can Do

Educators can assist by using classroom experiences such as dialogue groups, problem-solving workshops, and role-plays to practice GRIT tactics and tit-for-tat strategies. Subsequent debriefing sessions can be used to explore a variety of related issues such as effective communication techniques (both in terms of what to say and how to say it), emotional reactions (how to manage in the face of fear, anger, and hostility), and drawing boundaries around known areas of disagreement, so as to control any damage from further distrust. These types of techniques may also be useful in reducing stereotypes and prejudice, and encourage participants to come to embrace diversity

[1] Kramer, R. M. (1995). "In dubious battle: Heightened accountability, dysphoric cognition, and self-defeating bargaining behavior," in Negotiation as a social process, Eds. R. M. Kramer and D. M. Messick, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. P. 95-120. This chapter reviews paranoid cognition and explicates its dysfunctional effects in trust-relevant interactions.

[2] Osgood, C. E. Osgood, C.E. (1962). An alternative to war or surrender. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press

[3] (Lindskold, 1986, p. 315)

[4] Axelrod, R. The Evolution of Cooperation. New York: Basic Books 1984. This book traces game theory research on cooperation and defection in interdependent relationships and identifies the tit-for-tat strategy as optimal in the long run.

Use the following to cite this article:
Lewicki, Roy J. and Edward C. Tomlinson. "Distrust." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: December 2003 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/distrust>.

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