Towards an emotional understanding of trust in a climate of public distrust in science and regulation

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Risk, communication and trust: Towards an emotional understanding of trust

From Public Understanding of Science

Public distrust in science and regulation is widely discussed today. The issue of public trust is at the fore, and there is a growing body of literature that discusses its meaning and function. Voices are being raised that advocate the need for more deliberative, democratic, and communicative ways to earn trust.  Lack of public trust in regulation has also led to an explosion in risk management practices.  This study examines trust for public understandings of science and for risk communication. It argues that trust is a modality of action that is relational, emotional, asymmetrical, and anticipatory. Hence, trust does not develop through information and the uptake of knowledge but through emotional involvement and sense-making. The article summarises trust cannot be achieved by being a spectator, by passively being fed knowledge, or  standing alone outside of social life. Instead, trust is created when citizens are emotionally involved, take part, have a say, and in some sense are able to recognize themselves in the recipient of their trust. Trust is not only relational, but also emotional.

Abstract

Current discussions on public trust, as well as on risk communication, have a restricted rationalistic bias in which the cognitive-reflexive aspect of trust is emphasized at the expense of its emotional aspect. This article contributes to a substantive theory of trust by exploring its emotional character. Drawing on recent discussions in science and technology studies, social psychology, and general social theory, it argues that trust is a modality of action that is relational, emotional, asymmetrical, and anticipatory. Hence, trust does not develop through information and the uptake of knowledge but through emotional involvement and sense-making. The implications of this conception of trust for public understandings of science and for risk communication are discussed.

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Article details
Engdahl, E., & Lidskog, R. (2012). Risk, communication and trust: Towards an emotional understanding of trust Public Understanding of Science DOI: 10.1177/0963662512460953

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