Why You Should Trust Trust and Distrust Distrust
Betrayal, defection, and the classic stab in the back
Trust is peculiar.
We trust others to be faithful, keep secrets, safeguard money, honor contracts, and so on.
But even if we have known someone for ages, we can never predict with absolute certainty that they won’t betray us in the future. Yet we trust anyway.
Moral emotions, such as guilt (to deter bad behavior in ourselves), outrage (to deter bad behavior in others), and gratitude (to confer status on good behavior) arose to cultivate relationships with others based on reciprocal altruism and trust. This is a basic principle in evolutionary psychology.
We are naturally inclined to cooperate with others. But just because we have a predisposition to cooperate doesn’t necessarily mean it is rational.
Gambetta explores whether there are rational reasons for us to trust.
How is trust defined?
Gambetta provides an intuitive description:
“When we say we trust someone or that someone is trustworthy, we implicitly mean that the probability that he will perform an action that is beneficial or at least not detrimental to us is high enough for us to consider engaging in some form of cooperation with him. Correspondingly, when we say that someone is untrustworthy, we imply that that probability is low enough for us to refrain from doing so.”
When we say someone is trustworthy, we mean that cooperating with them will pay off for us in some way.
To believe someone is trustworthy means that when offered the chance, they are not going to behave in a way that is damaging to us.
Sometimes cooperation isn’t so desirable. For example, among robbers, murderers, and other criminals. People want less trust among those who threaten them. So it’s in their best interest to inhibit communication and thwart trust among their adversaries.
Poisoning the well for outgroups is often a wise strategy.
Gambetta observes that, “A priori, we cannot always say whether greater trust and cooperation are in fact desirable.”
But we usually think of cooperation as a good thing.
Gambetta explores the reasons behind low versus high rates of trust.
He observes that some blame capitalism for seeming low rates of trust because capitalism supposedly promotes cutthroat competition.
But in fact, Gambetta, citing the sociologist Max Weber, notes that non-capitalist societies are often more unscrupulous and aggressive than their supposedly more competitive capitalist counterparts.
Some of this may be due to the relative lack of resources in non-capitalist societies.
In Life and Death in Shanghai, Nien Cheng vividly describes the deceptions and maneuvers people would take to obtain food during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. People were required to stand in different food lines. One to get meat, one to get eggs, another for vegetables, and rice, and so on. But if you stood in the fruit line for too long, then the other lines might run out of food. So people would lie or use other deceptive methods or pull favors in order to undercut others and obtain scarce food items.
More recently, the writer N.S. Lyons in Palladium has observed:
“Contrary to trite Western assumptions of an inherently communal Chinese culture, the sense of atomization and low social trust in China has become so acute that it’s led to periodic bouts of anguished societal soul-searching after oddly regular instances in which injured individuals have been left to die on the street by passers-by habitually distrustful of being scammed.”
Furthermore, even though people generally agree that cooperation is a good thing, this is still no guarantee that they will actually cooperate.
The economists Partha Dasgupta and Kenneth Binmore have written:
“It is a major and fundamental error to take it for granted that because certain cooperation behavior will benefit every individual in a group, rational individuals will adopt this behavior.”
A bitter lesson of game theory is that even if people’s motives are not selfish, cooperation is still not guaranteed to flourish.
A well-known example is the Prisoner’s Dilemma. The mere possibility that the other person might betray you can lead you to betray him first, if only in self-defense.
People who have studied economics or read some game theory know that in a one-shot Prisoner’s Dilemma, the rational move is to always defect.
Interestingly, in actual studies of one-shot Prisoner’s Dilemma games among strangers, people tend to cooperate.
In other words, when people play a one-shot Prisoner’s Dilemmas with strangers they’ve never met, half or more will cooperate.
There are some interesting variations, though.
In one study, 43 percent of men who rated themselves as attractive cooperated compared with only 26 percent of men who rated themselves as unattractive.
In contrast, 36 percent of women who viewed themselves as attractive cooperated compared with 51 percent of women who rated themselves as unattractive.
In other words, (self-assessed) handsome men and plain women are cooperators, and plain men and beautiful women are defectors.
Another study found that overall, women are more cooperative than men. However, this effect reverses with age. Older men are more cooperative than older women, because men become increasingly cooperative with time.
A twenty-year-old man is 22 percent less likely, on average, to cooperate than a 20-year-old woman.
Over time, women do not become more or less cooperative with age. But men’s cooperation rate increases by more than one percentage point each year. By age 46, men are more likely to cooperate than women.
In another set of studies, researchers tested groups from two populations: college students and actual prison inmates.
Only thirteen percent of students cooperated, compared with 30 percent of prison inmates. The researchers conclude that “Prison inmates are better able to solve their classical prisoner’s dilemma situation than college students.”
Still, the Prisoner’s Dilemma helps us to understand why even when people desire to cooperate, they still don’t.
Gambetta observes that using revealed preference in the case of cooperation is an error. We might infer that if cooperation doesn’t come about, then that means people actually prefer the lack of it.
But this is wrong.
What is actually lacking is the belief that everyone else is going to cooperate. People are worried about being the only “sucker.” So they defect because they think that’s what everyone else does.
No one wants to cooperate if they believe everyone else is going to defect.
It is usually thought that trust must run both ways for cooperation to occur.
If two people completely distrust one another, then they definitely won’t cooperate.
If Alex trusts Bob but Bob does not trust Alex, then they probably won’t cooperate.
Both must trust the other for cooperation to occur.
But trust wouldn’t need to exist if people were unfailingly cooperative. Without the human ability to exercise agency—and the accompanying possibility of betrayal—the feeling of trust would never have evolved in the first place.
As Gambetta puts it, “Trust can be, and has been…a device for coping with the freedom of others.”
If people were fully constricted and forced to be cooperative, then trust wouldn’t matter. But as freedom and the feasible set of options increase, so does the importance of trust.
Which is why coercion, or its credible threat, has sometimes been (and still is) used to ensure cooperation, submission, and compliance.
But force (or its threat) is not an adequate alternative to trust. It can reduce how much we worry about the trustworthiness of others, because they are coerced to act in the way we desire. But coercion doesn’t actually increase trust.
It reduces it.
As Gambetta writes:
“[Coercion] introduces an asymmetry which disposes of mutual trust and promotes instead power and resentment. As the high incidence of paranoid behaviour among dictators suggests, coercion can be self-defeating, for while it may enforce ‘cooperation’ in specific acts, it also increases the probability of treacherous ones: betrayal, defection, and the classic stab in the back.”
Societies that rely on the use of force are less efficient, more costly, and more unpleasant than high-trust societies where coercion is not necessary.
In coercive societies, resources are diverted away from improving the lives of citizens and instead spent on surveillance, information gathering, and punishment.
Perhaps this is why trust has declined in China. The late political philosopher Angelo Codevilla has observed:
“In China the use of a computer-enforced ‘social-credit’ system of societal control for enforcing laws and social norms has coincided with a decrease in China’s historically high levels of social cohesion.”
As coercion increases, trust declines.
Gambetta observes that if we want to promote cooperation, it is important to trust others. But it’s equally important to be trusted. To be a trustworthy person. To cultivate a good reputation.
In Shakespeare’s Othello, Iago explains that unlike money, reputation is unique to the individual and far more valuable:
“But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him
And makes me poor indeed.”
The best way to earn someone’s trust is to actually be a trustworthy person. There’s no shortcut.
Being trustworthy is a good strategy in the long run. It attracts others to cooperate with you. Strong moral character raises your prestige in your group.
Research indicates that when people form impressions of others, they assign the highest importance to moral character. Morality eclipses warmth (e.g., sociability, enthusiasm, agreeableness) and ability (e.g., intelligence, athleticism, creativeness) in social evaluations.
Apparently, in economics, trust, altruism, and solidarity are often treated as scarce resources.
Gambetta quotes from an economics textbook:
“Indeed, some amount of trust must be present in any complex economic system…It would be risky, however, to make higher levels of trust into a cornerstone of economic reform. We may hope that trust will come about as the by-product of a good economic system (and thus make the system even better), but one would be putting the cart before the horse were one to bank on trust, solidarity and altruism as the preconditions for reform.”
This is saying that a good economic system is more likely to be a precondition for trust than vice versa.
Which is probably wrong.
I have long been skeptical of the view that material circumstances are the primary determinant of everything.
Japan has few natural resources. Yet they are a rich and high-trust society.
Then there are countries like Russia and Venezuela. They have plenty of natural resources. And they are full of cynicism and corruption.
The idea that material conditions are the key variable for trust or cooperation or relationships or our subjective emotional states is a weirdo Marxian theory. But it somehow became the conventional wisdom among educated people.
Homo sapiens have been trusting one another and forging social bonds for millennia. Back when they lived on the edge of death. That’s how our ancestors survived in a dangerous world.
If human fate is predetermined by material circumstances, then we should all still be living in caves.
Anyway. Gambetta challenges the idea that trust is a finite resource that is depleted through use.
In fact, he states that trust is better understood as a result rather than a precondition of cooperation.
Put differently, people commonly think we have to trust someone before we cooperate with them. But in fact, it may be that we cooperate with someone and then, depending on the outcome, infer trustworthiness.
And this is actually what happens with Prisoner’s Dilemma games.
As noted above, complete strangers tend to trust one another in one-shot games. And in iterative games—where people play repeatedly—cooperation (and trust) tend to increase over time.
This means that even where initial trust is practically nonexistent because people don’t know one another, cooperation still arises.
Furthermore, the fact that trust increases with each successive game demonstrates that it is not a resource that is depleted with use.
On the contrary, trust is depleted through not being used.
In fact, trust itself can give rise to trustworthiness. I remember being eighteen years old in the military, trusted to repair multimillion-dollar devices on C-5s and C-17s so that pilots and aircrews could travel safely and deliver equipment. Why would they possibly trust me to do this? I’d wonder. But the fact that they did made me want to live up to that trust.
Trust doesn’t seem to be a precondition for cooperation. Rather, cooperation comes first, trust second.
This suggests that in societies where cooperation declines, trust will decline as well.
Gambetta makes some interesting observations about friendship.
In the ancestral environment, trust and friendship were much more intertwined. As he notes:
“To the extent to which modern society has relaxed our dependence on friends for acquiring and maintaining resources…it has also given us a greater freedom to include among our friends some highly unreliable persons. We are free not to depend on them. With respect to certain actions, we may actually trust others much more than our friends.”
This is echoed in The Black Swan by Nassim Taleb:
“If you want to get an idea of a friend's temperament, ethics, and personal elegance, you need to look at him under the tests of severe circumstances, not under the regular rosy glow of daily life.”
But this is a challenge, because we don’t often see our friends endure “severe circumstances.” As the evolutionary psychologist David Buss has written:
“When times are good, fair-weather friends and true friends act alike. Modern living creates a paradox. We live in an environment safer than that inhabited by our ancestors. We suffer from a relative scarcity of events that allow us to distinguish true from fair-weather friends.”
Occasionally, though, truly stressful periods do arise. These moments are important for learning who people really are. From The Laws of Human Nature by Robert Greene:
“In everyday life people can often do well at disguising their character flaws, but in times of stress or crisis these flaws can suddenly become very apparent...There’s no way to tell until the heat is on, but you must pay extra attention to such moments.”
It’s never that difficult to find evidence of untrustworthy behavior. If someone dug through our pasts, resolutely determined to find evidence that we are untrustworthy, they could find something.
But the opposite doesn’t work. For most people, a single instance of trustworthy behavior doesn’t prove anything.
Which is interesting. Because it implies that we usually expect people to behave in a trustworthy way.
Trust is predicated not on evidence but on the lack of contrary evidence.
If you want to know how trustworthy I am, you don’t count up all the times I behaved in a responsible way and then make your decision. Rather, you focus on all the times I did something deceitful.
This makes trust vulnerable to destruction. Because it only takes a little bit of doubt and the mere hint of potential betrayal to ruin it.
Once distrust has entered our minds, it soon becomes impossible to know if trust was ever justified. How many other times have you lied to me? So distrust has the capacity to become self-fulfilling.
This thorny asymmetry, though, between trust and distrust is why it is rational to trust.
The best strategy is to trust trust and distrust distrust.
When we trust and cooperate with others, we learn who is trustworthy and who is not. We discover truths about the social world that we would otherwise be blind to.
When we distrust others, we never learn about those around us. We remain ignorant.
Starting from a position of trust keeps us open to evidence. Acting “as if” we trust others allows us to update our understanding of other people.
The person who trusts learns more about the world than the person who distrusts.