Would Manti Te’o Trust Lance Armstrong?

To Trust a Trustee

Credit: AP/Joe Raymond/George Burns

King Kong vs. Godzilla. The immeasurable force and the immoveable object. The mountain and Muhammed. To these historic pairings, add Manti Te’o and Lance Armstrong, in the roles of trustor and trustee respectively.  (For those outside the US, Te’o is a college football player whose girlfriend tragically died – and was then revealed to be a hoax, who never even existed. You know Armstrong).

It Takes Two to Do the Trust Tango

In the game of trust, there are two players: the trustor, and the trustee.

In the flurry of press coverage this past week, Manti Te’o is cast in the role of the trustor – the person who would trust another, the one who takes the risks.  The public narrative assigned to Manti is that of someone who over-trusts, who was gullibly hoodwinked by an unscrupulous party or parties. Think victims of Bernie Madoff.

Lance Armstrong is cast in the other role in the trust game: the untrustworthy party, the one who did the hoodwinking, the one who presented himself as utterly worthy of trust – and who then let everyone down. Lance plays the Bernie Madoff role in this re-enactment.

The Balance of Trust

It is, of course, possible to be too trusting – and to be too untrustworthy. Te’o and Armstrong are poster children for overdoing it in their respective directions. But there are three things to note about these contrasts.

1. The distinction is too often overlooked. How many headlines have you seen that say,”Trust in xyz is down?” What does that really mean? Does it mean that xyz is less trustworthy? Or does it mean that people have become less trusting, thereby hurting xyz?

It’s hard to define what the solutions to trust might be if we can’t first agree on what the problem is.

2. Blame is subjective. One man’s definition of untrustworthy is another man’s definition of too trusting.  Take Bernie Madoff. While everyone agrees he was a scoundrel, some people think victims should be reimbursed in some form by society.

Others think that greedy investors, who stupidly believed what they wanted to believe despite contrary evidence, got what they deserved, and that attempts to mitigate such results amount to a nanny state.

So what should we do to prevent future Madoffs: develop tighter regulations? Or educate consumers?

3. Extreme cases demonize trust.  The moralistic lessons that the media would teach us are two-fold – one each for the trustor and the trustee.  First, that we should clamp down on the untrustworthies out there waiting to get us. And second, that we should be very wary of over-trusting.

But both of those “lessons” mitigate against trust. One imposes restrictions, the other shouts warnings. One bans cigarette advertising on TV, assault weapons, and regulates viaticals. The other instills paranoia (always lock your car, password-protect everything, screen grandma at the Duluth airport).

Learning the Wrong Lessons

Both “lessons” serve to reduce the role of trust in society.  And en masse, that is a bad thing. We need more, not less, trust.

That means we need both more trustworthiness, and more willingness to trust. The two are connected, after all: not only does trustworthiness encourage others to trust, but trusting in someone raises the odds that they will live up to those expectations.

We’d be better off raising the average level of trustworthiness than worrying about the extremely untrustworthy. We’d be better off raising the average willingness to trust than worrying about the extremely naive.

We need to be wary of drawing conclusions from the trust soap operas playing out in the public square. Be good. Expect others to be good. Live your life that way. As Gandhi (supposedly) said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Or words to that effect.

Don’t live a life of paranoia. Be more trustworthy than Armstrong. Trust more intelligently than Manti Te’o. But don’t dial yourself back in either dimension. Instead, up the ante.