Are we done with Trust?

Leveraging psychology to rebuild trust and empathy in the digital sphere

Melisa Basol
5 min readFeb 6, 2024
Martynas Auž — ‘Curiosity’
Martynas Auž — ‘Curiosity’

At the core of our hyperconnected reality, where the digital and physical worlds often blur into one another, the need for and oftentimes absence of genuine human connection, is unavoidably stark.

We now find ourselves at a unique junction in history. Virtual connectedness and online interactions are no longer mere extensions of our ‘real life’, they are but foundational to our very existence and yet — at our most connected, we are also more lonely and isolated than ever (I wrote about this here).

I believe trust, or the lack of, is a core puzzle piece here. The German sociologist, philosopher, and critic Georg Simmel talked about a “credit economy”, where trust is a foundational piece underpinning modern social, economic, and scientific enterprises. After all, much of our daily life and the broader functioning of society rests on an inherent trust in the honesty and reliability of others. For instance, we place our trust in aeroplanes, science, financial systems, and internet security, without fully understanding their intricacies. In other words, trust is a core currency for a functioning society.

There’s an obvious paradox here: while we’re intricately linked, sharing everything from latte art snapshots to the most intimate life events and professional milestones, our capacity to forge genuine human connections appears diminished. Thus, in a pool of shared experiences, the essence of trust in another seems to be slipping through the digital cracks. Indeed, a report suggests that distrust has become society’s default emotion. When distrust is the default — we lack the ability to debate or collaborate. When trust is absent, division thrives.

Edelman Trust Barometer, 2023

By now we know that social media, which holds the power to build bridges, can facilitate, accelerate, and further deepen this very chasm. On the darker side of the internet, we are asked to navigate anything from fraud, abuse, and vicariously traumatic content to sophisticated and coordinated disinformation campaigns designed to have us question electoral processes and democracy. Perhaps it’s time to move beyond the notion that misinformation achieves its goal solely when individuals or groups adopt a specific (false) belief. Instead, we might consider that the real damage is done when people find themselves in a state of confusion, unable to discern what to believe at all. The emergence of AI-generated content intensifies this effect, making us question the trustworthiness of all online information. And just for good measure, let’s sprinkle algorithms, echo-chambers, and polarisation on top of that.

When I started my work on misinformation, ‘post-truth’ was coined the word of the year, resulting in a spurt of research on whether we had entered a time where we simply no longer cared for Truth (capital T). Today, I want to ask:

  • Have we entered the era of ‘post-Trust’?
  • Can we redesign our digital world to foster trust?
  • And can we once again turn to psychology to inform how we approach a societal challenge?

I am particularly intrigued by the prospect of applying Contact Theory to the architecture (both initial and iterative) of social media platforms, aiming to cultivate trust online. Dating back to the 50’s, Gordon Allport’s ‘contact hypothesis’ posits that positive intergroup contact, under appropriate conditions, can effectively reduce prejudice and enhance social integration between different groups​. This theory, hinging on a foundational level of trust, highlights the transformative power of direct and face-to-face encounters in promoting empathy, reducing anxiety, and shifting attitudes from resistance to acceptance.

The assumption is that when we encounter credible information that contradicts our existing beliefs — such as the humanity of a previously dehumanised “enemy” — we experience uncomfortable cognitive dissonance and, as a result, may change our beliefs and attitudes in order to regain psychological consistency. But recent empirical research emphasises that emotions are the main reason contact “works”.

In essence, although the theory suggests that certain conditions (stay with me!) — namely, meeting as equals, pursuing common objectives, cooperating, and having institutional support — set the stage for successful interactions, Contact Theory’s success primarily depends on reduced anxiety and increased empathy and trust towards the “other side”. Fascinatingly, a meta-analysis suggests that this holds true for direct contact (physical face-to-face encounters), vicarious contact (i.e., observing an intergroup encounter), and even imagined contact (i.e., imagining meeting an outgroup member)!

Illustration by Davide Bonazzi

Considering the volatile nature of online discourse today, could contact theory offer an effective pathway for fostering trust and reinforcing social cohesion in our digital environments?

The answer according to the scholarly community is a careful yes.

A recent study that reviewed 23 previous studies of online contact — including but not limited to the context of conflict — showed a correlation between online intergroup contact and reduced prejudice towards outgroup members. But truly applying it to the digital environment may require a more nuanced approach. For starters, online contact is typically anonymous and absent of non-verbal cues and yet, the internet might function as an “equaliser” where new ways of contact — whether through forums, social media, or collaborative projects — can be made possible that would perhaps not occur organically in our physical world.

Sounds great, no? Here’s the catch: remember how we said that emotion is the driving factor for contact to be effective? Well, studies also suggest that while the four theoretical prerequisites can be met in new ways online, online interactions also reduce our ability to feel empathy and take other’s perspectives. Put differently, the key ingredient for effective attitude transformation and trust-building is missing in digital spaces.

Once again, delving into one question led to a cascade of new inquiries. I am excited that contact theory offers a promising pathway to rebuilding the invaluable resource that is trust when we are at a historical low. The next questions concern how we shape online environments that encourage empathetic interactions. Is it possible to recreate the communal spirit reminiscent of libraries, where people from all walks of life can convene and learn together? I have a hunch that it’ll take a bit more work to understand how to envision and construct online spaces that foster social cohesion and empathy in our ever (dis)connected world.

But I’m excited to have you on board!





Melisa Basol

A finger on the pulse of society: a social psychologist's insights and actions against online harms.