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.

7 replies
  1. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    An aside….

    A phenomenon I’ve noticed over the years is the vast number of folks who have great ideas, have something to say and yet are reluctant to either (1) open their mouth or (2) allow their voice without needing to back what they say up with an "expert"….folks who are just plain scared to "show up" in and of themselves, authentically, and say their truth. These latter live in the world of "name dropping" or become walking "references," "bibliographies" or the "walking annotated" fearful of saying "I think" or "I believe" in and of their self. They don’t trust themselves or feel disconnected and so need to shore themselves up with s0-called "experts."

    I also find it interesting that in some circles, even the "experts" do this….constantly referencing one another…not unlike the "testimonials" on book covers (which I agree are necessary to some degree)…some type of incestuous, unspoken, ego-need for acceptance, approval and emotional security.

    Somehow, I think this unconscious "association" with experts gives many the feeling of being "somebody" as in and of themselves, without the association, they feel like "nobodies." 

    Then there are those who won’t accept someone else’s "truth" unless backed up by an "expert" (even when the expert proves to be incorrect, or wrong, or off the mark…as noted in your piece). That’s another phenomena in and of itself. 

    What I fine more and more are those who spend their life running from "expert" to "expert" looking for "answers" as they are consistently disheartened, dissatisfied and unhappy with their mose recent "expert".  Hmmm.

  2. Jeremy
    Jeremy says:


    I think that the situation can be best dealt with by engaging our logic before buying into the marketing technique.  If we really think through the spiel before jumping on board many times it will fall under it’s own wait.  That is exactly why many marketers love the "Buy today and get…".  It asks us to make the decision before engaging logic.

    Ronald Reagan used the quote "Trust but verify".  That is probably pretty sound advice for these types of situations as well.

    Jeremy @

  3. R Everett
    R Everett says:

    I find it consistently amusing that there are those who continue believe that somehow we humans are going to overcome the genetic coding that compels us to make choices based on emotion. Those who can (and there are a few) make decisions solely on logic are considered menatally ill – unable to empathize, sympathize or feel any remorse when their logical decisions cause heartache. Trust (and all the other illogical feelings we human are prone to and gifted with) is fact. We do it and it gets us in trouble. I suspect the desire to overcome the frailty of being ruled by our emotions helped create religion and the concept of an ideal state where there is no disappointment (aka heaven.)

  4. barbara garabedian
    barbara garabedian says:

     Charlie, many seek & trust SMEs for a variety of reasons: expertise we don’t own, being part of the "in crowd", confirmation of a decision we’ve already considered, and sometimes (probably more than sometimes) because we’re just too damn lazy to do the due diligence ourselves.  

    To those folks who said, “Anyone who trusts is a fool and a sucker"… I say, you need to put on your "big girl panties" and move on!! Life is all about takig risks & so is business. Don’t want to take risks, get out of the business arena.  Of course, one should try to minimize the amount of risk one takes before acting but "playing it too safe" can leave one in the dust of everyone else (the big three auto co have been eating international dust for years).

    The sharks got it right, if you don’t keep moving…you die!! One doesn’t move if one is paralyzed by fear and in the shark world, that means…you die! A shark always checks out the prey from several different angles before pouncing on it. It may initially look benign and weak but it could also be a predator playing "dead" or a net trying to "pull you in". At some point the shark has to "fish or cut bait" – (sorry, I  just couldn’t resist) otherwise, another predator will come along and grab it away while your weighing pros & cons. Not a bad metaphor actually, trust- but base it on something, and then act – either move on it or away from it. 


  5. kathleen
    kathleen says:

    I’ve been intensely interested in this topic for years, Cialdini being just one side jaunt. There’s another side to this, that of truth activist (with no credentials). As I can readily attest, one risks making themselves very unpopular in contradicting prevailing "wisdom". People do not take kindly to the notion that a) those in whom they’ve placed inordinate confidence are wrong and b) that the investment of time/money they spent chasing after said half-baked solutions was wasted. It is typical that one who chooses to contradict becomes the target of much resentment and criticism and is shut out of the process.

  6. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:


    You’re right, Cialdini is only one part of the show, and it’s a very big show. Part of it, as you say, is cognitive dissonance.  The tendency to continue to believe, despite rampant rational disproof, is strong.  Rationalization beats rationality easily.

    (BTW, readers might want to read Kathleen’s own thoughtful piece on cognitive dissonance in her blog).

    But I can shed some light on the question you ask in your blog: what to do about it?  How to get through to those poor resistant, illogical fools.

    The worst way to convince illogical people of their irrational beliefs is to firmly prove to them that they are illogical people whose beliefs are irrational.  One of the firmest rules of human behavior is that calling someone an idiot tends not to reduce their idiocy.

    It’s more like the opposite.  Honey, not vinegar.  Empathy.  Understanding.  Asking questions.  Listening.  And then walking away, having planted a seed. 

    Some seeds never grow, and never get harvested. Some do.  But only when the person chooses to do so, almost never when the outsider wants it.



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