The Thin Line Between Trusting and Self-Delusion

Chris Brogan is, if not a new media god, then assuredly a prince-in-waiting. Unpretentious and wildly prolific, there may be higher quality bloggers out there—but they put out one-tenth of what he does, and his quality:volume ratio is good enough that I nearly always read him.

So what if a popular blogger like Chris puts out a spoof—an April Fool’s day blog—and no one picks up on it?

That’s what happened, twice in a row. First, he posted “Get More Twitter Followers—Today!” an infomercial-type get rich quick genre spoof. In case anyone didn’t get it, he followed up with 10-no-4 Days to Become a Social Media Expert!

And—you guessed it—apparently these two posts were huge hits. Chris is partly bemused and partly seriously wondering why. (Now, Chris is no dummy—of course he knows why. He’d just like to see fellow-bloggers like me spell it out in various ways. OK Chris, here’s my take).

Are People Deceived? Or Are They Delusional?

On the face of it, there are two theories why people would over-react to these blog titles.

Theory 1. People trust Chris Brogan and, holy cow, if he says so, it must be true!
Theory 2. People trust anyone who’ll promise them get-rich-quick schemes—they are sadly self-deluding.

The truth is, as usual, all the above, and a few more. You can chalk it up to naievete, or the triumph of hope over experience, or the enduring ego-centric belief that god is uniquely talking to us and us alone in providing these windows to opportunity—I’m not sure the reason matters.

The point is: it’s a thin line from trust to self-delusion.

Is the Decline of Trust Vastly Over-reported?

Hearing of an obituary having been published about him, Mark Twain famously wrote that “reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” I wonder if the same may not be true of trust?

We’re all familiar with the headlines of declines in trust among professions, government, business and other institutions. I don’t disbelieve them; but at the same time:

  • Are you using your credit card more online these days to purchase goods? Someone is. Has their level of trust in online commerce gone up?
  • Are states gaining more revenue from lotteries than they were four years ago? (I can’t find data more recent than 2007—someone else?). If so, does that mean we trust state government more these days?
  • If Chris Brogan’s blog stats go up when he promises instant karma, does that mean we’re now in a post-Madoff economy and more easily trust online promises of fame and fortune?

I guess what I’m getting at in juxtaposing these data is that first, measuring trust is a bit like weighing fog. You know there’s something there, but by the time you get your hands around it, much of it has burned off in the sunlight or condensed on the measurement instrument. Measuring longitudinal trust on the same question with the same audience seems to work; beyond that, I find it hard to draw many conclusions from comparative studies except at the grossest levels.

Secondly, the human capacity to BS ourselves is quite remarkable. We’re all quick to decry others’ obsession with get rich quick schemes. But there are an awful lot of “others” out there, and some of them look a lot like us.

And it’s hard to tell the difference between sensible trusting and insensible self-delusion.

Me, I clicked on Chris’s first link. There, I said it. And I’m still not clear why I did it. Do I trust Chris Brogan? Or am I a self-deluding fool?

Don’t forget about answer "d. all the above."

8 replies
  1. john verry
    john verry says:

    I don’t think its delusion or deception — rather a measure of the negative impact associated with a "failed trust".  The amount of trust I need in a doctor to perform brain surgery is notably higher than the amount of trust needed in a doctor who is providing me an insurance physical.

    If I come to realize Chris Brogan "duped" me — I am only out a few minutes of my time.  Further, I am not likely to complain because the impact was so minimal – hence we lack a true measure of whether the individual in question knows his trust was mis-placed.

    If I come to realize the brain surgeon screwed up and I only have months to live — my loss is incalculable.  Further, I am likely to file a claim and my realization of failed trust is "public record".

    We leverage many of your ideas on trust in the Information Security domain — where this differentiation is critical.

    Always enjoy your posts —


  2. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    Interesting comments. 

    Shaula, I think of John’s post as partial answer to yours.  I think of trust as somewhere along several continuums (ok, continua).

    Continuum 1.  From blind faith to calculated probability.  I would say trust falls in the middle.  Blind faith has to do with magic, or religion, or lack of critical faculty (and I mean no disrespect to religion here).  Calculated probability means a sober, purely statistical, rational view of odds, with a firm decision rule being fed by the numbers.  I think of trust as in the middle: a decision, informed but not driven by the odds, about whether to put oneself in harm’s way of another.

    In that sense, is trust interchangeable with blind faith or cold calculus?  No. But just like it’s hard to say where the plains end and the mountain begins, it’s hard to draw precise dividing lines.

    Continuum 2.  Similarly from deception to delusion.  At one extreme–deception–we are hoodwinked by a former NASDAQ chairman and praised market-maker with a track record and apparent SEC approval–Bernard Madoff.  At the other extreme–delusion–we lead ourselves down the garden path of believing that something too good to be true really is true, and that we needn’t do our own homework.  Again, that is, with respect to one Bernard Madoff.

    Note that, in this continuum, the agent–Bernard Madoff–is one and the same.  The difference between delusion and deception is, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder.  And again, it’s hard to draw precise dividing lines. 

    Were Madoff’s feeder funds victims, or co-conspirators?  They will tell you they were victims.  Others find that an egregious assertion.

    Did Ruth Madoff trust her husband?  If you believe she did, then you probably believe she was duped, deceived.  And if you believe she didn’t trust him, then you probably believe she was self-deluded, believing she could outrun the firestorm, along with Bernie (or without him?).

    Were Elie Wiesel and Kevin Bacon deceived?  Or deluded?  Presumably they both trusted him; I think they would say so, and that therefore–from their point of view–they were deceived.  But from another’s point of view, one might say both were foolish to trust Madoff, smart enough to have known better, reckless in their decision to forego due diligence and invest with him.  Deluded, one might even say.  So–which is it?

    Continuum 3.  From low risk to high risk.  John Verry’s example.  Did Chris Brogan flagrantly destroy my trust in him?  Don’t be silly–it was whimsical, no harm no foul–no "trust" was "destroyed,"  John says.  But if my brain surgeon screwed up, then there’ll be hell to pay for the serious act of the Destruction of Trust. It depends on the seriousness of the consequences, says John.

    I think the common thread in all these is that "trust" is an extremely situational term.  It makes sense in context.  It is in the eye of the beholder.  It has multiple meanings.  It is not neatly walled off and bounded by definitions.  This is why trust measurement is particularly tricky–it’s a leap to presume that everyone is answering the same question, much less in the same way. 

    And this makes sense.  If we could bound it, define it, measure it–it really wouldn’t be trust, would it?  It would be that calculable, quantifiable, statistical measure that may be many things, but really doesn’t quite add up to trust.

    You ask if I’m saying trust and gullibility are interchangeable. 

    -Yes, and no.

    -It depends.

    -d., all the above



  3. Shaula
    Shaula says:

    Fascinating answer, Charlie.  Thank you very much.

    I hope you’ll publish it (in some form) as its own post. 

    I’ve been meaning to ask you some kind of question that would elicit this explanation for a long time now, and I suspect other readers would find it helpful and interesting, too.

  4. John Verry
    John Verry says:

    Indeed, fascinating.  Thank you for the very well considered response.

    Continuum one seems to be from the perspective of trust (i.e., the one trusting).

    Continuum two seems to be from the perspective of trustworthiness (i.e., the one being trusted).

    Continuum three seems to "apply" to both situations — rather than being an "equivalent" continuum.  In most instances it more strongly applies to continuum one (i.e., the "gravity" of the situation impacts the level of trust I must have), however, you can also be at greater risk being trusted by different parties/entities (e.g., the President of the United States taking your advice versus the President of Acme Widgets taking your advice).


  5. Charles Neville
    Charles Neville says:

    I’m a regular reader of Chris Brogan’s blog and follow him on twitter. I took the posts for exactly what they were intended to be, a lampooning of the cheesy tactics of the get-rich-quick types. 

    The reason these posts got a fair amount of the traffic they did is people like me telling others ‘you have to read this, it’s really funny’.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *