Trust is Down? Wait – What Does That Even Mean?

We hear it all the time. Trust in banking is down. Trust in Congress is down. Trust in the educational system is down. We hear these statements, we say, ‘tut-tut what’s the world coming to,’ and we go on about our business – in large part, because we don’t know what to do about them.

Well, no wonder.  These seemingly obvious statements mask a fundamental confusion about the nature of trust – a confusion that prevents us coming up with basic solutions.

The problem is this. When trust in banking is down, does that mean:

a. that banks are less trustworthy than they used to be?  Or,

b. that people are less inclined to trust than they used to be?

Those are very different problems. Typical solutions to the problem of trustworthiness have to do with ensuring the behavior of the trustee.  Think regulations, penalties, enforcement, behavioral incentives and the like.

We too often neglect the other side of the equation – the propensity to trust. The problem is simple enough to state: you may be the most trustworthy partner in the world, but if the other party is unwilling to trust you, nothing will happen.

The propensity to trust is critical. It amounts to risk taking. Despite Ronald Reagan’s famous quote to the contrary, there is no trust without risk. The dictum to “trust but verify” in fact destroys trust by sanctioning acting on suspicion.

The Hitchhiking Problem

In the 60s, hitch-hiking flourished. By the late 1980s, it was dead.  Partly, hitchhikers were afraid to hitch; but mainly, drivers were afraid of hitchhikers. And it wasn’t due to an epidemic of violence; it was due to a fear of violence.  We lost a great deal when we lost hitchhiking – economically and culturally.  (The move to collaborative consumption, interestingly, is a contemporary resurrection of that idea).

Why is hitchhiking relevant to trust in banking?  Because one common response to low trustworthiness – perceived or otherwise – is a reduced propensity to trust. Which will kill trust just as surely as will low trustworthiness.

There is a huge cost to low propensity to trust; look at The Cost of Fearing Strangers by the Freakonomics folks. We are great at articulating the risk of doing something; we are awful at noticing the cost of doing nothing.

Want a really Big Example? Next time you’re in an airport, look at the social cost of us not being able to trust grandmothers from Dubuque on their flight to Grand Rapids.

The Laws of Trust

To people schooled in free-market economics ways of thinking, trust is hard to make sense of. If the propensity to trust declines, you’d think the market would respond by creating more trustworthy offerings. In fact, just the opposite happens. Suspicious people tend to attract con artists; skeptics get sucked in by fakes.

The reason is simple: trust is not a market transaction, it’s a human transaction. People don’t work by supply and demand, they work by karmic reciprocity. In markets, if I trust you, I’m a sucker and you take advantage of me. In relationships, if I trust you, you trust me, and we get along. We live up or down to others expectations of us.

We have been teaching and practicing business according to the wrong Laws of Trust. The solution for low trustworthiness is not necessarily to trust less, but to trust more, and more intelligently. Maybe you’ve heard, “The best way to make someone trustworthy is to trust them.”

We’re Teaching the Wrong Laws

Our public education and culture is loaded with the free-market versions of trust. We teach, “If you’re not careful they will screw you.” We passcode-protect everything. We are taught to suspect the worst of everyone, be wary of every open bottle of soda, watch out for ingredients on any bottle.

Then in business school, we are taught that if customers don’t trust you, you need to convince them you are trustworthy – partly by insisting on our trustworthiness.  You can’t protest enough for that to work: in fact, guess the Two Most Trust-Destroying Words You Can Say.

By teaching distrust and confusing trust recovery with messaging, we are teaching entire generations to be suspicious of anyone and everything. By teaching suspicion and distrust, you can make book on it: what we’ll get is a reduction in trustworthiness. Read the Tale of the Thieving Convenience Store Managers.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t teach trustworthiness; much of my career has been built heavily around that. But by itself it’s not enough.

We need also to be teaching risk-taking, relationships, and the values of being connected to other human beings –not just than calibrating the dangers of hitchhiking.

Don’t tell me there’s no data.  The General Social Survey has been collecting data on the propensity to trust since 1972. One interesting finding: the propensity to trust is strongly correlated with educational attainment.  What does that say about the social and economic costs of cutting educational investment in the name of lowering taxes?

And don’t tell me I’m naive. I was in Denmark a few months ago. I left my wallet in a taxi. By the time I discovered it, my client had left me a message to say the taxi driver had returned it to their offices, and they’d paid him to bring it to my hotel. Which he did.

I expressed amazement at how well it had all worked out. My client said, “Nothing to be surprised at. Anything less would have been surprising.”

I bet the Danes hitch, too.

  • Bob Whipple

    That is a good posting, Charlie. It reminds me of what I call “The First Law of Trust.” That is, if you are not happy with the trust you are receiving from others, the first thing to do is find ways to show more trust in them.
    Would you agree?

    • http://twitter.com/CharlesHGreen Charles H. Green

      Bob, I completely agree. The more I learn about trust, the more I emphasize a simple point: trust is a relationship. It is an asymmetric relationship, i.e. trusting is not the same as being trusted. And for trust (the relationship) to prosper, each player must play his or her role, and that role has to switch back and forth. Reciprocation is of the essence.
      As you put it, to get others to trust you, first trust them.
      A pretty universal piece of human wisdom.

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