While researching trust and why it occurs, I revisited the idea of a Rational Actor Theory. This is the first psychological idea I came across concerning trust and why it occurs. I initially disregarded it, but after circling back to the theory, I realize that perhaps part of it holds. According to The Conversation, Rational Actor Theories “suggest that people will be trustworthy toward someone else only if being so is instrumental in maintaining that relationship. Given that powerful people tend to have many partners to choose from, they place – relatively speaking – less value in any particular relationship, reducing the likelihood that they will behave in a trustworthy fashion.” While most of this theory is not accurate, I think that the part about maintaining relationships is. For example, When visiting the doctor, it’s polite to accept their advice and orders. After all, they did attend YEARS of schooling to do so, compared to you, someone who likely knows very little about medicine. From this perspective, trusting the doctor is instrumental in maintaining your relationship with them.

As human beings, we value relationships with others. Having strong relationships provides support and boosts our self-esteem. Of course, maintaining relationships is just one of many factors that influences our willingness to trust. As I previously discovered, people trust because they don’t want to seem dependent. Attached to feelings of dependency is anxiety, and so trusting influential individuals is a defense mechanism. It doesn’t matter how deserving the powerful person is of trust; the less-powerful will still have faith in them in out of protection for themselves. This psychological idea is known as motivated cognition. But whether it be for maintaining relationships or for defending oneself, placing trust in others is almost always done in self-interest.

It sounds selfish, but human beings are designed to survive. Just like any other animal, we nearly always function to keep ourselves and our offspring alive. These “complex” theories are a result of us fighting for survival. Because humans are an advanced species with high brain capacity, we naturally do more advanced things (in terms of mental processes) to stay alive.

So why do people trust? Why do we have faith in institutions that fail us time and time again? It’s simple. We are built for survival, and in order to do that, we must look out for ourselves and place trust in people of power. There are many situations in which this trust isn’t necessarily deserved. However, consider the consequences of trying to uproot an inherently untrustworthy system. While doing so may seem noble, it could cause greater issues for that individual. Revealing the unqualified nature of doctors? Refusal of treatment necessary for a decent quality of life. Exposing our untrustworthy government? Prison time, or even death. We cannot afford to pick apart our failing institutions, simply because doing so will pick us apart as well.



CC BY-SA 4.0 Motivated Cognition and Rational Actor Theory by Emma is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


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