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Social Trust and Confidence in Environmental Risk Management

Timothy Earle
Bellingham, WA

At the 1999 Brunswik meeting, I outlined the results of some of the recent research on social trust carried out at Western Washington University by George Cvetkovich, our visiting colleague from Zurich-Michael Siegrist, and myself. In this note, I describe two of the questions our research will address in the coming year.

First, we will attempt to clarify, and provide persuasive evidence for, the distinction between social trust and confidence. This distinction, first proposed by Niklas Luhmann and subsequently elaborated by Adam Seligman, has never been closely examined empirically. This neglect is a consequence of the general conceptual confusion that has long frustrated progress in this area.

The confusion may be only on the surface, however. When we reviewed recent studies of trust, across disciplines and issue contexts, two distinct concepts were consistently identified (as indicated by measures, not concept labels): trust and confidence.

Trust is the willingness to make oneself vulnerable to another based on judged similarity of values, and confidence is the belief, based on experience or evidence, that certain future events will occur as expected.

Trust and confidence are alternate paths to cooperation. Cooperation can be driven by confidence based on past performance; or it can be supported by trust based on shared values; or it can be based on some mixture of the two.

Our context of application is environmental risk management. In many risk management controversies, information about past performance is either unavailable (due, for example, to newness) or difficult to interpret (because it is highly technical, because it deals with nonintuitive probabilistic concepts, because it deals with rare events, etc.).

In such cases, there is little basis for confidence. But there is still the possibility of trust, and, therefore, of cooperation. In addition, trust can contribute to the development of confidence, thereby establishing the basis for a stable relationship. Finally, in cases of past poor performance, trust can act as a bridge between lost and regained confidence.

In our study of social trust and confidence, we will test a latent variable structural model that consists of seven constructs: (1) social trust, which is based on (2) value similarity; and (3) confidence, which is based on (4) past performance. Both social trust and confidence affect judgments of (5) risk and (6) benefit, which in turn lead to (7) cooperation.

All the paths in the model are positive except for those to and from risk. Several questionnaire items will be designed to measure each of the constructs in the model, and confirmatory factor analysis will be used to test the construct validity of the central factors of interest, social trust and confidence.

In our second major research effort, we will attempt to demonstrate the importance of social trust to the resolution of environmental disputes. One of the characteristics of environmental disputes is lack of confidence that the system of dispute resolution will work properly. Social trust, therefore (based on the structural relations described above), may provide a new, alternative means of dispute resolution.

We have designed two experimental studies to test the efficacy of two different ways of encouraging social trust. One involves making inclusive-group characterizations available and salient to disputants; the other is based on suggesting expectations of trust rather than distrust. Both of these procedures should produce signals of similarity, leading to increased trust and, subsequently, to cooperation.

We hope to report progress on these studies of social trust at next year's Brunswik meeting.

Contact Timothy Earle

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