The nature of trust

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In your life, there are most likely some people that you trust, and some people that you don’t.

That seems obvious.

Trust is a pretty big part of our lives and culture, and the “X doesn’t trust Y (anymore?)” plotline exists in pretty much any tv serie, movie and book ever written. That’s definitely an idea that generates a lot of interest in a story.

But when you think about it, there are two very different kinds of trust.

You might trust someone with the keys to your house. You feel like this person will not go in while you are at work and steal stuff.

You could also trust someone by believing what they tell you, instead of doubting them. I want to write about that second definition today. Is there anyone you really trust?

I was thinking about it, and I realised that no matter how much I trust someone, if they tell me that they’ve seen a green alien running around the neighborhood today, I will doubt them. I will probably start by looking at today’s date. Is it Halloween today? Is it April’s fool today? If neither of those is the case, then I’ll ask for proof. It may be due to me being a bad friend, but without such proof I wouldn’t believe it. I’d rule it as a bad joke and move on. If the person telling me this was a stranger, I would probably follow a very similar reasoning, except for trying to have as much tact and diplomacy as possible throughout the conversation.

The same reasoning applies to not trusting someone. I don’t trust strangers, but if they tell me the time of day or directions, I’ll most likely believe them, except if it obviously makes no sense. I don’t think there is anyone I know that I distrust enough to assume that they are lying when they tell me that there’s currently a sale at that store nearby. It seems like this second definition of trust depends on the message way more than it depends on the person.

The person delivering it seems to barely even change my response to it. So yeah basically I was thinking about that the other day, and I figured that this second definition is really not as simple as it seems. I don’t know anyone who truly relies on the messenger more than the message when deciding if something is believable, except of course for the cognitive bias that make us actually rely pretty much on just the messenger and medium for anything, but that’s another story altogether.

Do you have anyone you trust enough to not doubt it if they told you something very unbelievable? Do you have anyone you distrust enough to not believe them for the most trivial or logical things?

  • I think my personal “trust” calibration is similarly to yours, as you say if someone – even a close friend – tells me they’ve seen a little green man, or a flying saucer. or a flying pig, I’d definitely start from a default position of “oh, yeh, prove it?”. I suspect this may be related to the idea of entropy in information – Shannon’s pioneering work of the 1940s, much loved by electrical engineering and computing people, especially those who deal in communication and compression. If a new factoid is surprising, then it needs more bits of information to represent it (in a communication, or in a compression system) – and needs more proof as a result. I suspect “amount of proof that we should need of a surprising fact” is directly proportional to information entropy.

    More widely, I don’t know if anyone has applied this kind of thinking to the modern highly partisan social media phenomenon, whereby people sort themselves into “people like me” groups and only read their own trusted media – so lefties only read lefty media, righties only read righty media (and alt-righties despise most righty media as not righty enough for them:-)). As a result, we no longer have a common trusted media, or common trusted fact-checkers, that we can refer disagreements to – this seems highly corrosive to public discourse to me.

    One example from our post-truth insanity occurred during the Brexit debates in the UK, when a politician chatted with a random voter who said that the US should be forced to leave the EU. The politician gently corrected the ignorant voter, saying: sorry, you’re factually wrong – the US is not, and never has been, a member of the EU, did you possibly mean NATO? The voter (who I’m struggling* not to define as an ignorant git) said back to the politician: you’re lying! of course the US is a member of the EU, why do politicians always lie? Lists of the 28 (at the time) EU member countries are publicly available, but what can you do if someone flat out denies the facts and doesn’t trust the publicly available sources of fact checking?

    *: and failing:-)