Epistemic trust is a term with which many may be unfamiliar. It began as a term used in sociology before being adopted into the vernacular of psychologists in more recent years. The most basic definition is “one’s trust in communicated knowledge.” However, it can be more specifically described as “the capacity of the individual to consider the knowledge that is conveyed by others as significant, relevant to the self, and generalizable to other contexts” (Campbell, 2021). This communication can be in many forms, such as spoken words, non-verbal communication cues like body language, or reinforced messages communicated across a lifetime. The development of epistemic trust begins early in life as we interact and learn from those around us and is continually refined throughout our lives to adapt to our social environments.
Most of the psychological research studies on epistemic trust focus on personality disorders, specifically borderline personality disorder (Fonagy et al., 2015). However, more recent studies are considering epistemic trust as it relates to other kinds of psychopathology, and its implications for belief in conspiracy theories has even been considered (Tanzer et al., 2021). Unfortunately, due to the novelty of this concept in psychological studies, there is a shortage of available research to explore this topic further, especially in trauma-related areas. However, the recent development and validation of a questionnaire to measure an individual’s level of epistemic trust, mistrust, and credulity can aid in this area. This questionnaire allows for a closer and more standardized look at individuals’ epistemic trust and can be incorporated easily into future research (Campbell et al., 2021).
Considering epistemic trust and how it pertains to clients can also be useful in the treatment planning process. For example, one study highlighted that individuals diagnosed with personality disorders who had an elevated level of epistemic mistrust had poorer outcomes from their therapy experiences (Knapen et al., 2020). This may be the case for many that enter therapy with complex trauma backgrounds or other conditions that have reinforced a distrust in communication from others. This opinion can be supported by the argument that “epistemic trust may be the final common pathway through which aversive relational experiences in the past result in interpersonal dysfunctioning, which in turn result in dysfunctional therapeutic relationships, rendering it difficult for patients to trust whatever is offered to learn in therapy” (Knapen et al., 2022).
Little research has been done on achieving the restoration of epistemic trust, but it is believed that therapeutic interventions may be the most beneficial (Kamphuis & Finn, 2019). To date, there has been no known study that aims to investigate the relationship between trauma-focused therapy and restoration of epistemic trust. Such a study may prove to be a critical piece to understanding how epistemic trust impacts this population of therapy clients and whether trauma-focused therapy is an effective tool in the restoration of epistemic trust. As this concept continues to gain interest, we can expect a wealth of exciting developments in this area that will ultimately lead to improved therapeutic outcomes for clients everywhere.
Campbell, C., Tanzer, M., Saunders, R., Booker, T., Allison, E., Li, E., O’Dowda, C., Luyten, P., & Fonagy, P. (2021). Development and validation of a self-report measure of epistemic trust. PLOS ONE, 16(4), e0250264. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0250264
Fonagy, P., Luyten, P., & Allison, E. (2015). Epistemic Petrification and the Restoration of Epistemic Trust: A New Conceptualization of Borderline Personality Disorder and Its Psychosocial Treatment. Journal of Personality Disorders, 29(5), 575–609. https://doi.org/10.1521/pedi.2015.29.5.575
Kamphuis, J. H., & Finn, S. E. (2019). Therapeutic Assessment in Personality Disorders: Toward the Restoration of Epistemic Trust. Journal of Personality Assessment, 101(6), 662–674. https://doi.org/10.1080/00223891.2018.1476360
Knapen, S., Hutsebaut, J., van Diemen, R., & Beekman, A. (2020). Epistemic Trust as a Psycho-marker for Outcome in Psychosocial Interventions. Journal of Infant, Child, and Adolescent Psychotherapy, 19(4), 417–426. https://doi.org/10.1080/15289168.2020.1812322
Knapen, S., van Diemen, R., Hutsebaut, J., Fonagy, P., & Beekman, A. (2022). Defining the Concept and Clinical Features of Epistemic Trust: A Delphi study. Journal of Nervous & Mental Disease, 210(4), 312–314. https://doi.org/10.1097/NMD.0000000000001446
Tanzer, M., Campbell, C., Saunders, R., Luyten, P., Booker, T., & Fonagy, P. (2021). Acquiring knowledge: Epistemic trust in the age of fake news [Preprint]. PsyArXiv. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/g2b6k
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