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Most of the Foundation’s programs are aimed at deepening our understanding of social problems and social trends that immediately impact the quality of national life. On occasion, however, RSF invests in social research for sheerly scientific reasons – when we believe that the long-term development of social science will yield eventual benefits in improved understanding of the causal forces underlie the flux of social events. Behavioral economics has been one such undertaking; our research initiative on the social role of trust is another.

Social science has made real progress in recent decades by examining the social implications of human selfishness. Many apparent puzzles of social life can be unraveled by looking carefully at the ways individuals pursue their self interest in interaction with others. On this view, cooperation arises where individuals naturally share compatible incentives, or when they can contractually obligate themselves to serve each others’ interests. But contracts can never be complete. Informal social mechanisms, like norms of honorable behavior or reputational networks, appear to play a role in sustaining cooperation by restraining sharp dealing and punishing defection. So, too does the psychological state we call trust – the belief that others, at least some of them, can be trusted to protect our interests, sometimes even at the expense of their own.
The Foundation’s initiative on trust, which was operative between November 1995 and November 2005, aimed to clarify the nature of trust and understand its role across a wide variety of social relationships – from personal friendships, to relations between professionals and clients, business dealings, interactions within and between organizations and even relations between citizens and their government. In every case, we were interested to learn how trust affects the workings of a relationship, how it enables cooperation, and how it is achieved, lost and regained.
When RSF inaugurated the Trust initiative in 1995, there were also major theoretical and methodological questions to be answered: What are the sources of trust? What role does trust play in supporting institutions such as the market economy or representative government? Is trust between friends analogous to the "trust" a government might be said to inspire in its citizens? Is more trust necessarily a good thing, and when is it unwarranted, naive, and harmful? How can we best measure trust, and what kinds of evidence do we need to discriminate between rival theories?
In the first year of the initiative, RSF established the Trust working group to promote interdisciplinary discussions on basic issues in the study of trust. Led by Karen Cook of Stanford University, Russell Hardin of New York University, and Margaret Levi of the University of Washington, Seattle, the working group organized over a dozen conferences and workshops at Russell Sage and elsewhere, bringing together philosophers, political scientists, sociologists, historians, economists and psychologists. The working group also developed a highly successful series of books based on research funded through the Trust initiative. Fifteen of these books have been published so far, covering topics as diverse as democratic institutions in Latin America, taxi drivers in New York and Belfast, schools, international relations, the criminal justice system, and the evolutionary origins of trust. Another volume is in press, and eight more additions to the series are currently being considered or developed.
To strengthen the empirical basis of the field, RSF issued a request for proposals in 1999 for research on trust in specific social contexts, concentrating on solid measurement and explicit hypothesis testing. Altogether the foundation supported 48 research proposals. RSF also hosted 11 visiting scholars studying trust.
The Trust initiative was brought to an official close in November 2005, and RSF does not expect to make any new awards for investigator-initiated research on trust. However, RSF may occasionally consider additional trust-related book proposals of exceptional merit.
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Recent Visiting Scholars
2005 - 2006
Gary Fine, Northwestern University

2004 - 2005
Edna Ullmann-Margalit, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

2003 - 2004
Lesley A. Sharp, Barnard College
Rick K. Wilson, Rice University
Julia C. Wrigley, City University of New York

2001 - 2002
Avishai Margalit, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

2000 - 2001
Bruce Carruthers, Northwestern University

1999 - 2000
Robert Klitzman, Columbia University
Tom R. Tyler, New York University

1998 - 1999
Bo Rothstein, Göteborg University
Piotr Swistak, University of Maryland at College Park

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