“It’s like being in love”

Text: Regula Freuler | Photos: Getty Images / Prof. Martin K.W. Schweer | Magazine: Trust in society – September 2019

Trust, according to psychology professor Martin K. W. Schweer, is based to the greatest extent on reciprocity: those who don’t feel trusted don’t trust others. A conversation about the import­ance of formative years and trust as a resource for companies.

Children are said to have an “instinctive trust”. Is trust something we’re born with?

A newborn baby has no alternative other than to confer trust; after all, it is defenceless and unable to survive on its own. But you can’t speak solely of experience-based trust, because trust is something that develops over time. It’s the result of various factors: one’s individual character, previous contacts and the conditions in any given situation. Attempts are always made to filter out these individual disposition/environmental factors, but the decisive element is always the complex interplay between all of the relevant determinants.

Are you referring to the hypothesis of behavioural geneticist Robert Plomin, who argues that genetic testing can determine the cognitive abilities of a newborn and, on that basis, predict the child’s educational potential in later years?

Presumptions like that are problematic in my opinion. Rather, of pivotal importance is that the attempt is made to give people the best possible support according to their individual potential. In this respect, we in Germany still have a lot of catching up to do. When it comes to trust, the sense of security – the bond – experienced by children in their immediate personal environment is very decisive. This can be with the parents, but also conceivably with other caregivers.

How does the willingness to enter into trusting relationships interrelate with self-confidence and self-esteem?

These three characteristics take shape from an ongoing symbiotic process. When one enters into trusting relationships, the probability of having positive experiences increases, which in turn strengthens one’s self-confidence and self-assertiveness. People with high self-confidence are more likely to take a risk – and trust is always a risk.

“Trust takes courage.”

You can be disappointed at any time. This doesn’t mean, however, that a person will necessarily remain equally trusting or mistrustful throughout their life. Ultimately, that depends entirely on the successive experiences this person collects in the various stages and areas of life.

Can you give us an example?

Take for instance a baby boy who experiences a loving and stable relationship with his parents at home and develops a healthy degree of self-confidence. Then he goes to primary school and is terribly disappointed in his teacher. Trust takes a long time to unfold – but it is very quickly destroyed. Conversely, someone with a low level of self-confidence due to family socialisation issues can gain self-confidence and self-esteem from experiences in school or during leisure time. There’s no doubt, however, that the environment at home is of course a very important cornerstone for one’s start in life.

Today’s teenagers are being labelled “Generation Careful”: they drink less than their parents, are less inclined to take drugs, fight less – they’re generally not risk-takers and seem less self-confident. Is this the result of helicopter parents?

Nowadays, people are much more sensitive to behaviour that poses a risk to their health; this is also the result of educational influences and targeted awareness measures. For example, smoking is no longer “cool” these days. Overly cautious parenting, on the other hand, is in my opinion a learned collective behaviour, fed by partly irrational fears, the genesis of which can be traced to the media and its headlining of negative individual cases.

Martin K. W. Schweer

The psychologist (1965) is Professor of Pedagogic Psychology at the University of Vechta, where he also heads the Center for Trust Research he co-founded in 1996. He also counsels athletes and advises companies. In addition to many specialised scientific publications, he has also written books of appeal to the broad public, namely “Facetten des Vertrauens” (Noack & Block) as well as “Vertraut euch!” and “Wer aufgibt, wird nie Sieger! 40 Lektionen zur Steigerung der mentalen Fitness” (Frank & Timme).


Can trust also function unilaterally?

Only if one doesn’t realise that it’s one-sided. After all, trust stands or falls on perceived reciprocity. Those who trust another person assume that they, themselves, are equally trusted. It’s like being in love: if people love and are convinced that their love is reciprocated, this reinforces the relationship. In our culture, reciprocity is an important social norm. For example, it’s not without reason that we invite to our birthday party those who have previously invited us to theirs. If we suddenly catch signs that our trusting ways are not being reciprocated, we experience this as a breach of trust. Consequently, our own trust in that person will wane.

Why for most people is sexual fidelity the touchstone for trust in a love relationship?

Because most people consider the sex dimension to be the essential line of demarcation between a love relationship and just any other interpersonal relationship. For instance, in the doctor-patient relationship, professional competence plays a crucial role in trust. In many other cases, the “fidelity” aspect is completely insignificant.

You’re also a psychological consultant to management. What advice do you have for managers who are working to create a trustworthy image?

Winning the trust of others shouldn’t be the primary goal; first, you need to personify it. Then it will inevitably radiate, and not just be perceived as a strategic marketing ploy. Accordingly, companies need to understand that, in and of itself, trust is an important resource both internally and externally; companies must strive to engender a culture of trust. For that reason, a compelling question right at the start of development measures frequently centres on how the company’s postulated guiding principles and corporate philosophy compare to the “actual” daily life within the company.

Most corporate captains probably don’t like to hear that, do they?

It’s ultimately a question of management’s fundamental attitude. But especially in view of today’s complex challenges and need for innovation, organisations are increasingly willing to take the risk of trust.

“Winning the trust of others shouldn’t be the primary goal; first, you need to personify it.”

What risk?

That one commits to participation and transparency and ultimately also to bearing any consequences. If, for example, in a family-owned company it ultimately boils down to the patron taking every decision on his own, basic impact factors can’t gain traction in building trust; rather, they merely provoke disappointment and frustration. In my opinion, highly paid managers who are not interested in fostering a culture of trust within their own company are today no longer tenable in their positions.

You also look after athletes. Where are the sticking points?

Many people assume that top athletes have a high degree of self-confidence – but they often do not.

Why not? They get a lot of positive reinforcement from their success.

There’s a huge difference between conditional and unconditional appreciation. Top athletes are people who have defined themselves through their performance since their early youth and today are defined from outside. Through this form of conditional appreciation, they learn how important it is to be continuously successful. Hence, the fear of failure can increase considerably. Conditional appreciation is not negative per se, but there also needs to be the experience that you’re valued regardless of your performance, for example by family or very good friends.

You speak of the “soccer mom” or “tennis dad” phenomenon – in other words, drill sergeants, right?

Not necessarily. Frequently, these are very subtle and unintended processes. Take for example the behaviour of parents after their own child has had a tournament success – or has failed. The howls of let-down speak for themselves, although in the vast majority of cases, these parents have no wish to punish their children by their expression of disappointment.

How does an athlete get out of such a blue funk?

The first step is to sensitise the person to these psychological processes, combined with the realisation why possible failures are so frightening. Ideally, this should be combined with constructive collaboration with the parents and trainers.

“Trust takes a long time to unfold – but it is very quickly destroyed.”