Is it Stupid to Be Trusting?

The ever-catchy Seth Godin  highlights an ad for the new super-exclusive Visa Black Card.  So rare it’s made of carbon.  So elite that it’s limited to just you, and 2,999,999 of your closest friends. It screams exclusivity right through the mass media it’s advertised in.  

Nicholas Kristof reported last month  on how reliably un-expert experts are.  Philip Tetlock, he reports, studied 82,000 predictions by 284 experts over two decades.  The results:

“It made virtually no difference whether participants had doctorates, whether they were economists, political scientists, journalists or historians, whether they had policy experience or access to classified information, or whether they had logged many or few years of experience,” Mr. Tetlock wrote. 

Indeed, the only consistent predictor was fame — and it was an inverse relationship. The more famous experts did worse than unknown ones.

Dr. Robert Cialdini, the reigning expert in the field of influence, has identified six basic drivers of influence in human beings.  The first is reciprocity—a mutual sense of obligation triggered by the actions or words of one. 

The second and fourth are scarcity (the Black Visa Card) and authority (Jim Cramer).  It is demonstrably stupid to believe that the Black Card is exclusive, and that Cramer is a better stockpicker than the next guy.  Demonstrably.  But we believe both anyway.  (Well, not you and me, of course.  But everyone else does.  The fools.)

In sales, any number of experts will tell you that people buy from people they like, or trust; that people buy with their heart, and rationalize it with their brains.

If you’re not buying any of this, review exhibit A, Bernard Madoff.  He masterfully combined all the triggers into one slick package.  An expert, likeable, you could get in on the deal if you were special (you and your 3 million closest friends), and so forth.

A lot of people I talk to about trust throw up their hands at all this and say, “Anyone who trusts is a fool and a sucker.”  I prefer to call it human.  Trusting is not going away anytime soon; it’s too deeply imbued in our genes and is, net net, too valuable.

We can, of course, get smarter.  But the most likely result of getting “smarter” is to stupidly avoid sensible risk-taking by following the "smart" advice of someone else. 

“Smart” is a vastly over-rated virtue in the human species.  I’ll bet my Black Card on it.
 

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