Last year I was at a leadership conference and listened to a presentation about trust. The researchers were examining people’s experience of trust by using a questionnaire survey. It got me thinking how difficult it is to ‘measure’ trust due to its complex relational and contextual nature and how this plays out over time. It reminded me of the process of exchanging a gift and the sense of expectation that is created between the giver and receiver. And it is in this reciprocity of expectation that relationship continues. Trust can be seen in a similar way, but here the focus is not a tangible item like a gift, but the relationship itself brought to life with confidence-building gestures.
Pierre Bourdieu, in Outline of a Theory of Practice (1977), argued that the tendency of abstraction, free from context and the temporal flow of events, is a fundamental problem of researching how people interact with each other. An objective approach would consider the principle of gift exchange as a form of reversible operation. Here gifts are to be returned by an item of similar value, thus cancelling out the obligation. Or in the case of trust, confidence-building actions are matched by similar actions. However this does not account for the intertwined context that the parties have to navigate, along with feelings of hesitation, possibilities and expectation, and how this fits in with the meshed course of irreversible past events. Bourdieu also considers ‘style’ of gift exchange – the occasion and nature of further gifts – and how this affects the experience of the ongoing process.
To illustrate the point let us take Sheldon Cooper. Sheldon is one of the main characters in the comedy, The Big Bang Theory. They are a bunch of rather nerdy physicists and engineers working in a university along with their friend and neighbour, Penny, a waitress who dreams of stardom. Sheldon, bordering on the autistic, sees everything from the perspective of the objective scientist. And it is this mindset that trips him up when Penny gives him a Christmas present, here is the video (Cendrowski , 2009). Shocked that he has been given an obligation, in the form of a present, he buys a range of gifts of different values. Upon receiving his gift from Penny he plans to quickly check its price on the internet so he can give the one of closest value and return the rest to the store. But of course, Penny gives him something priceless (and worthless): a signed napkin of Sheldon’s hero, Leonard Nimoy. Here the zero-sum game of gift exchange collapses and Sheldon is overcome. How then can we describe trust in a way that gives voice to the relational and anticipatory nature of experience rather than focusing on the abstract notions of exchange? I shall call this the ‘Sheldon Dilemma’.
Bourdieu, P. (1977). Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Cendrowski , M. (2009). The Bath Item Gift Hypothesis. The Big Bang Theory, Season 2, Episode 11.