You can’t see it, but you can feel it. Even more, you feel its absence: trust.
That confidence, rooted in truth and honesty, plays a role in every relationship and every aspect of social interaction — and when that sense of reliability goes missing, our society’s institutional foundations erode. In March, Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, in partnership with other schools at the University, launched the cross-disciplinary Trust Project, which aims to strengthen research, practice, and understanding of trust in business and society.
Trust has long been a focus for scholars at Kellogg and across campus, but an organized project crystalized in 2013 when Kellogg Dean Sally Blount and Thomas Hubbard, then senior associate dean of strategic initiatives, explored investing in the subject as part of the Kellogg Markets and Customers Initiative (KMCI).
“We realized this is a topic where many academic disciplines can provide complementary insights, including at least nine of our faculty in finance, management and organizations, strategy, and other areas,” Hubbard says. “We used this as an impetus to consider the investment we should make.”
Kent Grayson, marketing and Trust Project faculty coordinator, has studied trust since he was a doctoral student at Northwestern, applying it to his research on the role of fabrication and fact in consumption. He is particularly interested in understanding how consumers navigate trust and distrust in buyer-seller relationships. Over the past two years, Grayson has led the project’s effort to combine Northwestern’s diverse resources as a major research university with deep disciplinary expertise.
Grayson found that researchers in a broad range of fields — sociology, philosophy, marketing, economics, medicine, and government — explore trust. At least 36 scholars throughout
Northwestern have published research involving some aspect of trust, including its nature, mechanics, and ramifications. Grayson reached out to collaborate with these trust investigators and share ideas.
While sociologists might ask how trust affects social arrangements, economists question how trust makes systems more or less efficient, according to Sanford Goldberg, philosophy and a contributor to the Trust Project. Goldberg’s field, however, views trust as more than a transactional condition; it is also an integral element of how we acquire knowledge. “Trust is one of the great interpersonal aspects of our knowledge,” he says.
“Much of our knowledge is acquired through trusting other people.” The Trust Project investigates that trust-knowledge connection while at the same time relying on it, as experts from different fields come together to learn from one another.
By leveraging Northwestern’s expertise, the project aspires to serve as a resource for academics and business executives to learn about trust’s nuances, understand trust from various perspectives, and translate insights into practice.
Grayson’s team, including KMCI Executive Director Jamie Rosman, research analyst Devin Rapson, and marketing manager Leah Davis, has produced a series of videos featuring trust experts in both academia and industry.
Thus far, the project has recruited more than 12 contributors, including a philosopher, a sociologist, and a pediatrician.
Trust in Our Everyday Lives
Many of our actions, big and small, are influenced by trust: getting married, of course, but also applying for a credit card and visiting a physician. Understanding the consequences of losing that trust is more than an academic exercise.
In one video, Goldberg explains that in addition to epistemology — the theory of the nature, sources, and extent of our knowledge — philosophers approach trust in terms of its own nature, rationality, and ethics. Trust is a kind of reliance, characterized by a moralized reaction when it’s violated. “If you trust me and I let you down, you’ll feel disappointed. You might resent me,” Goldberg says. There’s a sense of betrayal.
He also discusses whether we have ethical obligations to trust certain people. If your spouse or children are accused of a crime and they swear they are innocent, you may be disposed to trust them. But if evidence of their guilt surfaces, are you ethically obligated to? That’s the sort of question philosophers consider when exploring trust.
While Goldberg’s research is primarily on the abstract level, he enjoys “talking with folks who think about how trust is actually manifested in real interpersonal relations and how it’s relevant to our business relations and economy.” That includes Northwestern colleagues such as Kelly Michelson, the Julia and David Uihlein Professor in Medical Humanities and Bioethics; and Bruce Carruthers, the John D. MacArthur Chair and professor of sociology.
As director of the Center for Bioethics and Medical Humanities and a Pediatric Intensive Care Unit physician, Michelson has direct experience researching how trust affects relationships in a healthcare context. “My work is largely around communication and decision making in the PICU as well as in the world of pediatric palliative care,” she says. “So I’m interested in how clinicians engage with families around difficult decisions.”
In one of her videos, Michelson discusses three characteristics of a trusting relationship in healthcare settings: vulnerability, motivation, and a focus on the future. By contrast, distrust in medicine might arise from a lack of familiarity, pessimism about another’s intentions, or a desire to withhold judgment.
Michelson is currently implementing her research on trust by conducting a randomized controlled trial studying the efficacy of using a navigator to support communication between parents and healthcare workers, compared to providing families with an informational brochure.
Carruthers, director of the Buffett Institute for Global Studies, brings to the project his socioeconomic expertise on how trust affects relationships in practice. As a sociologist specializing in comparative historical sociology, he explores trust and trustworthiness in the context of the economy, including in relation to financial markets and credit ratings.
“In the early 19th century, there were no FICO scores, there was no Dun & Bradstreet,” says Carruthers. “You would ask yourself, is this individual trustworthy? Do they have a reputation for honorable dealings?” Today credit data, contracts, and standard operating procedures help coordinate economic relationships, yet the information remains incomplete because the world is more complicated and unpredictable than can be anticipated. Thus, trustworthiness still plays a critical role.
Other contributors include a US Army colonel, a CEO, and a psychologist. Grayson hopes the project will attract more trust experts from across Northwestern while benefiting from “the broader community of scholars who have taken an interest in the project as we try to facilitate conversations within and across disciplines.”
A Novel Approach to Collaboration
The Trust Project is unlike the traditional collaborative model. “One thing that makes our project distinct is that we’re creating new content,” Grayson says, noting that the project builds on the combined expertise of its trust scholars rather than focus on each contributor’s specific research.
Interdisciplinary work is inherently difficult, particularly when different fields disseminate knowledge in their own ways. For example, some may publish books whereas others publish journal articles. How do disciplines that draw from disparate foundations overcome fundamental and procedural differences?
Grayson says one of the great things about the Trust Project is that “it did not require our collaborators to build those bridges. Instead, we asked them to show us what the piers of the bridge would be and then invite other scholars to build on those piers.”
He hopes that the Trust Project’s interdisciplinary design will inspire other researchers to learn more about the subject, including by reading articles outside their domain of expertise and taking advantage of the initiative’s video archive. In doing so, these scholars can discover fresh insights they may not have otherwise considered, integrating this knowledge into their own research.
Michelson hopes both to gain insights and to share her work with a broader audience. “Interacting with other disciplines is a breeding ground for cross-pollination,” she says. “This initiative is a way for me to learn from others doing similar work.” It has already helped disseminate her research beyond her own academic arena, allowing further exposure of the ideas she is developing about managing trust in healthcare.
Carruthers joined the Trust Project hoping for the opportunity to “make an intervention and contribute to a conversation — put some material out there that people will learn from.”
The initiative offers a platform to reach an audience outside his field, to share his sociology expertise, and to open channels for interdisciplinary research. There’s a quality of serendipity to finding collaborators, he says. “If I get a co-author out of it, that would be like winning the lottery.”
The Trust Project positions Northwestern to become a hub for research and discussions about trust. “We hope to eventually host academic and possibly practitioner-oriented conferences and events that will bridge disciplines,” Hubbard says, “ultimately bringing a community together to exchange knowledge about how we conceptualize and solve issues about trust.”