Trust, Obligation and Winter’s Bone

The other night I saw the movie Winter’s Bone, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, and richly deserves any of the future honors it’s sure to collect.  

The movie takes place in the mountains of the Missouri Ozarks. Ree Dolly is the 17-year-old girl whose father has skipped bail, leaving her to support her two younger siblings and an Alzheimer-addled mother.

If you believe in character development as the mark of a good movie, this one lays down the marker early. As they go to bed hungry, while neighbors down the road skin a deer, her brother asks why they can’t ask the neighbors for some. Ree tells him coldly: “You don’t ask for what oughta be given.” In a sense, the movie consists of challenging that statement with the obligations of kinship and society.

Only in retrospect was it clear that the plot had been foreshadowed in the movie theater itself. It was one of those downtown New York art theaters that fill up on a hot weekend afternoon.

We settled in two seats from the end, and a seat away from a single man, who had another empty seat on his other side. As the theater filled up, a woman sat near us, and then asked, down the row, “Would you all mind everybody moving down one seat?” 

I looked at her quizzically. “I’d like to be able to sit with my parents and sister,” she explained, “and if you all move down, we can take the first four seats.” We grumped a bit but moved down. The man now beside us didn’t move.

“Would you mind moving too sir? Please?”  

The young man said, “Yes, I would mind, thanks.” I settled into my seat to watch what happened next.

“You see, I’d like to be able to sit with my family,” the woman explained. “Would you mind, please?” Silence. “Would you mind moving over, sir?” she said, more loudly.

“I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again, that should be enough. Yes, I would mind. How many times must I say it?” he said.

The older man, sitting on the end of the row in front of us turned around and said, “You must be from New York, I suppose, not moving and all.” Silence from the man.

“Sir,” the woman, “I’m trying to ask very nicely…” “And you’re still getting the same answer from me,” the man interrupted. “You might want to stop talking about it now.” 

Which she did. Though I must say the exchange stayed on my mind through the movie.

And as I said, the movie was about the clash of “Don’t ask for what oughta be given,” vs. the obligations we hold to others. And it made me think.

Here’s where I ended up.

If you never ask, you have no reason to complain when you get nothing. And sometimes you have a right to ask, even on fairly general principles.

On the other hand, there are some limits to asking. As far as I’m concerned, the man would have been within his rights to say, “Look lady, I came here early to get the one seat I wanted to sit in. You came here late, looking to get four seats, and to get them by begging. 

“And when you didn’t get them by begging, you proceed to extortion by guilt-tripping. Sometimes I move over. Today I don’t. At the last you should stop it.   At best, you owe me an apology.”

What do you think? What do we owe each other? What right do we have to ask? Where are the boundaries? And where are the lines that are meant to be crossed?

Put another way, who can you trust? And how and when do you have the right to ask for trust?



Do You Trust a Robot? To Do What?

Do you trust a robot?

Well, you might say, it depends: that depends on who did the programming. 

We do use the word ‘trust’ that way. We can ‘trust’ a robot to do the same thing, over and over. It doesn’t have bad motives, bad days, or bad blood. It does what it’s programmed to do.

But we would never say we’d trust a robot to “do the right thing,” or to “keep its owner’s best interest at heart,” or to “have a conscience.” That would just be silly. A robot is a machine. And silicon is not protein.

Yet much thinking about social trust amounts to nothing more than programming the robot. Got problems on Wall Street? Tweak the incentives. Oil drillers behaving badly? Rewrite the programmer rules of the MMS.

Much of that’s necessary. But it’s not sufficient. What’s to be done about all the non-robotic parts of society?

Sister Rettinger Uses Non-robotic Trust to Shame a Thief into Restitution

Writing programs for robotic trust is pretty simple. Go read one of the economists or psychologists who boil down all human behavior to the consistent pursuit of self-interest, and borrow their formula. Define a few processes, insert rules and conditional reward/pain payoffs, and voila—robotic trust.

But that won’t explain Pittsburgh’s Sister Lynn Rettinger: or the thief she undid with her voice:

Rettinger didn’t even have to break out a ruler for man who reached into an open window and stole a wallet from a car on Tuesday. She just needed the voice honed by nearly 50 years in Catholic schools.

After a teacher saw the man swipe the wallet, the 5-foot-3 principal of Sacred Heart Elementary School in the Shadyside neighborhood went outside and firmly told the man, "you need to give me what you have."

The unknown thief turned over the wallet, apologized and walked away.

Rettinger says she merely said what she says to students when she knows they have something they shouldn’t.

Let’s be clear: the Sister called out a stranger for misbehavior: and he responded. While strangers, they shared a moral code. While he was a lawbreaker and she just a little old woman, she trusted that he would not harm her, and that he would do the right thing.   And so he did.

The rules of interpersonal conduct—or morality, or trust, or conscience—are often considered to be far ‘softer’ than the rules governing physics, or programs governing robots. But Sr. Rettinger had enough confidence to calmly place a bet on their power. And she was right.

There is a power that exists between human beings, a binding web of mutuality, that we have systematically denied—to our own detriment.

5th Pillar in India Challenges Bribe-takers to Cease their Demands

Vijay Anand, chairman of 5th Pillar, has printed up over a million zero-rupee notes. The notes are to be given by poor people to officials who try to extort them for basic services.

When confronted with a demand for a bribe, the citizen offers up a zero-rupee note. This act turns out to have serious, positive consequences. In one case, “a corrupt official in a district in Tamil Nadu was so frightened on seeing the zero rupee note that he returned all the bribe money he had collected for establishing a new electricity connection back to the no longer compliant citizen.”

When engineered properly, the power of the force that binds people to each other can overwhelm the selfish power that economists presume drives us all.

Selfishness Is Over-rated: Trust is Under-Rated

I’m getting tired of hearing it cited routinely, over and over, as if it were self-evident, that people are selfish and will behave badly unless stopped or otherwise incented, especially if they work for companies.

They are not. People are vastly flawed and far from perfection; but they are also selfless and capable of great acts of generosity.

Dr. Robert Hoyk lists a number of ways we can think about increasing trust, many of which don’t involve behaviors and incentives. David Gebler suggests that culture drives trust , which seems perfectly obvious when you just put it that way. Then we catch wind of a headline and we’re off to the behavioral sanctions route once again.

Programming the robot; what does it get you? The same thing, over and over.   There’s a lot to like about dependability and reliability. Just don’t claim that’s all there is to trust.

Shaming Bribe Takers with Zero Denomination Currency

A most curious post showed up on the site. It tells the story of 5th Pillar, a unique initiative to mobilize citizens to fight corruption in India.

According to Anand, the idea was first conceived by an Indian physics professor at the University of Maryland, who, in his travels around India, realized how widespread bribery was and wanted to do something about it. He came up with the idea of printing zero-denomination notes and handing them out to officials whenever he was asked for kickbacks as a way to show his resistance.

Anand took this idea further: to print them en masse, widely publicize them, and give them out to the Indian people. He thought these notes would be a way to get people to show their disapproval of public service delivery dependent on bribes.

The notes did just that. The first batch of 25,000 notes were met with such demand that 5th Pillar has ended up distributing one million zero-rupee notes to date since it began this initiative. Along the way, the organization has collected many stories from people using them to successfully resist engaging in bribery.

When confronted with a demand for a bribe, the citizen offers up a zero-rupee note. This act turns out to have serious, positive consequences. In one case, “a corrupt official in a district in Tamil Nadu was so frightened on seeing the zero rupee note that he returned all the bribe money he had collected for establishing a new electricity connection back to the no longer compliant citizen.”

The Power of Shame Over Corruption

The article suggests several reasons for the power of the zero-rupee notes. Corrupt officials become frightened of being discovered; they also don’t want to have disciplinary proceedings established.

But the most powerful reason, says the article, is that the fact of the many zero-rupee bills’ existence empowers citizens. They no longer feel alone, and therefore have the courage to stand up against corruption.

What I find interesting are the comments to the blogpost. About a third of them are skeptical, saying it won’t work—this after reading an article about how it does work. Others say it works temporarily, only new laws will work permanently, it’s only a novelty.

Even many who say it does work are prone to focus on the odds of getting caught—suggesting the zero-rupee notes alter the rational risk-taking behavior of the corrupt officials.

I suggest they’re over-thinking it. The power of the zero-rupee note is what the article said it was—the empowering of a disenfranchised group in a very public way.

Call it shaming.

It’s exactly what I wrote about the other day in the confusion over ethics and finance. In a western-driven world which worships rational analytics, ascribing all motives to deductive calculations of self-benefit, we tend to under-rate the impact of the moral disapproval of our peers.

Whether we’re talking about corrupt civil servants in Tamil Nadu, or self-aggrandizing employees in a US company, I think most people are still capable of being ashamed; and that shame comes from a larger group of human beings. In situations where the law seems behind the curve, a deeper sense of community can restore balance.

Shaming is the public expression of a community’s view; we shouldn’t under-estimate its power, for good and for bad.

The Power of Shame to Fix Low Trust

Randy Schumann Pay Your BillLongtime friend of TrustMatters Shaula, together with hubby Neil, ran across the photo you see on the right here while on the road in Montana. (Click here to see the web version if you’re reading in text).

It seems that one Randy Schumann may have an account in arrears at the local Gas Mart.  And the retailer in question has resorted to a time-honored tradition to enforce some social justice.


Let me suggest, in all seriousness, that we need more Tiger-Town justice, and less Sarbanes-Oxley types of solutions. 

Shame–for lack of a better word–can be good social policy.

Positive Uses of Shame in Creating Public Trustworthiness

The Tiger Town in Montana is hardly alone. 

* Think about the “perp walk,” used by cops and prosecutors quite consciously.  As Wikipedia puts it, “Perp walks are often done to politicians or businesspeople accused of white-collar crimes (whose reputations may be susceptible to damage by public spectacle).”

Rat* The use of the giant inflatable rat as a shaming device is a long-time tool of unions.  But it goes further; the rat is protected legally (I’m not kidding, see here) as a form of free speech.

* Let’s not forget about the (used to be, anyway) power of investigative journalism.  The notion of muck-raking in the US ; the power that the Washington Post put behind Watergate, or the New York Times behind the publication of the Pentagon Papers.

* Local TV news shows delight in consumer protection episodes that go by names like the Wall of Shame, our version of the Puritans’ placing people in the stocks in the middle of town. Cops know it’s more effective to post photos of Johns than of prostitutes (so do town governments, which is why that doesn’t often happen). 

Shame Works by Enforcing Social Standards

It may seem obvious, but let’s take a moment to see why shame works.

Most people intuitively agree with Justice Brandeis that “sunlight is the best disinfectant.”  Transparency is a valuable social vehicle for increasing trustworthiness in our institutions.  Disclosure is a bedrock of legislative regulation—in pharmaceuticals, financial services, and environmental policy.  The idea is that organizations will not put out to the public things that they would prefer not be seen by the public. 

The most powerful thing about shame is that it works by enforcing social standards.  If the behavior that is exposed runs strongly counter to public instinct, then the power of shame is large.

If you are ashamed by something, it means you fear the judgment of the public.  To be ashamed, on a very personal level, means to feel the rejection of our peers.  It is a powerful effect, and serious medicine when administered at scale.

Shame Should be Part of the Response to Financial Scandals

The popular press is all over Washington to do something to prevent further abuses in the financial sector.  The pressure is building, because so far very little has been done.

Part of the problem is that “what should be done” has come to rhyme with massive, heavy-handed governmental regulation.  Worse yet, most of that regulation has to do a combination of prohibition (Glass-Steagall)  and massive efforts at compliance and disclosure.

The problem with disclosure alone is it rapidly degenerates into mountains of fine-print, while accomplishing nothing in terms of felt social obligation on the part of those writing it.

The problem with structural change alone (think Sarbanes-Oxley) is that it’s expensive, and the opportunity costs are even higher than the outlays.  Just think of the massive price we pay every day in airports because we haven’t figured out a socially acceptable way to keep terrorists from planes other than forcing granny in Dubuque to dump her over-sized tube of toothpaste when she boards a plane.

I’m far from alone in this.  Read the devastating critique by famed Madoff whistle-blower Harry Markopolis.  He suggests that what we do not need is the routinized, predictable box-checking approach to compliance.  Instead, we need randomized, aggressive sampling, followed by publicity. 

Exactly. Unexpected audits, followed by the application of shame.  Bring on the judgment of the people who own the society, who are the ultimate source of the approval of whatever goes on in our society. 

Enough with laws and regs; up with enforcement and shame.

And Randy—about that account.  The Rat is next.