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We’re In A Trust Crisis. Here’s What We Can Do About It.

2022 January 30
by Greg Satell

When I lived and worked in Ukraine, it was commonplace to see men in camouflage fatigues and Uzi’s in the waiting rooms of offices around town. They weren’t there as security, or to rob the place, but to help transfer money between businesses. It was cumbersome and inefficient, but in an atmosphere of mistrust, it was a necessity.

In most countries, we’re still a long way from armed couriers as a daily routine, but according to Edelman’s recent Trust Barometer, we’re headed in that direction. Entitled “The Cycle of Distrust,” it details an overall collapse of confidence, finding that roughly two thirds believe that journalists, government leaders, and business executives, are “purposely trying to mislead.”

That’s a problem for all of us. Mistrust is corrosive to the norms that help our society run efficiently and the costs are very real. Our lack of trust in government prevents us from making needed investments. Suspicions about law enforcement undermine public safety. Mistrust in the workplace undermines performance. We desperately need to rebuild trust.

The Value Of Trust

Trust isn’t our natural state. Economists have developed a number of models to show how fragile it can be. For example, in a prisoner’s dilemma, two suspects are brought in for questioning. If they both stay true to each other, they get the best collective outcome, but if each follows his or her own self-interest, both will confess and get the worst overall outcome.

Related concepts are the tragedy of the commons, in which everybody has access to a common field to graze their livestock, depleting the resource so that everybody’s herd suffers, and the free rider problem which often occurs with respect to public goods. These situations are known as Nash equilibriums because nobody can change their preference without making themselves worse off.

When you take a moment to think, it’s kind of amazing that we operate with as much trust as we do. Local businesses faithfully serve communities for years, even decades. Corporations spend billions to build brands and governments work to earn legitimacy. That is what allows us to easily transact business throughout the day. When trust collapses, we get Uzis in waiting rooms.

Yet it doesn’t have to be that dramatic. Research by Accenture found that “trust events” cost businesses billions of dollars every year. For example, a consumer-focused company that had a sustainability-oriented publicity event backfire lost an estimated $400 million in future revenues. Another company that was named in a money laundering scandal lost $1 billion.

Profiting From Our Mistrust

Our brains are geared for mistrust in a number of ways. The first is a bias for loss aversion. We will do more to avoid a loss than we will for an equivalent gain. That makes trust hard to build and easy to lose, which is why the “trust events,” like those cited in the Accenture study, are so costly.

Another contributing factor is availability bias, our tendency to overweight easily accessible examples, such as a specific trust event, and ignore vague concepts, like years of good service. Once we accept a belief, our confirmation bias will lead us to seek out information that supports our prior beliefs and reject contrary evidence.

These effects are multiplied by tribal tendencies. We form group identities easily, and groups tend to develop into echo chambers, which amplify common beliefs and minimize contrary information. We also tend to share more actively with people who agree with us and, with little fear of rebuke, we are less likely to check that information for accuracy.

That, essentially, is the economics of disinformation. Fear breeds mistrust, which makes us feel insecure and leads us to seek out people we identify with to reinforce our beliefs. Research suggests media companies, especially social media companies, profit from the passions that the most polarizing information unleash in the form of greater engagement with their platforms.

Facts, Identity and Fear

We tend to think of truth as a simple matter of knowledge and understanding. We see the world as a set number of facts and believe that any disagreements arise from a lack of clarity about what the true facts are. In this view, mistrust can be corrected by better access to good information. Once people are informed, how could there be any disagreement?

Unfortunately, the world doesn’t work that way. In fact, a study at Ohio State found that, when confronted with scientific evidence that conflicted with their views, people would question the objectivity of the science. Another thing to consider is that, as Sam Arbesman explained in The Half-Life of Facts, our ideas about what’s true changes over time.

We can’t rigorously test every proposition, which is why we adopt the views of those around us, a phenomenon that psychologists call social proof. What makes the effect even more insidious, is that the relationship is reciprocal. We internalize the ideas of the tribes we join and then propagate those same ideas to others, intensifying the echo chamber.

Our beliefs are far more than mere acceptance of sets of facts, but become inherently part of our identity. Wars are not fought over ideologies because people disagree about empirical evidence, but because they see their sense of selves under attack. If truth is a force for good, then those who refuse to accept our version of it are, in the most basic sense of the word, evil.

From Victimization To Empowerment Through Purpose

Our ability to trust others is, to a great extent, a function of how we see ourselves and our situation. If we see ourselves as secure and in tune with our environment, it’s relatively easy for us to build bonds of trust. If we feel those around us share our values, it’s easier to feel a shared sense of identity and purpose.

However, if we see our surroundings as hostile, we will take steps to protect ourselves and that, to a great extent, is where we are at today. First the Internet, and then social media have tended to promote and juxtapose the most extreme elements, creating an atmosphere of heightened conflict among tribes, which further undermines our sense of security and trust.

This is what Marshall McLuhan meant when he wrote that the global village would result in a “release of human power and aggressive violence” greater than ever in human history. When we are confronted with ideas and values that are different from our own, it can feel more more like an assault and an affront than a refreshing interaction with the variety of life.

Here Ukraine offers a lesson. Over the past decade it has built a new identity and found a new purpose. Today most Ukrainians, especially the younger generations, feel a stronger affinity for European values than for their post-Soviet past. In fact, they have so internalized their European ambitions that they are willing to risk a war to maintain them.

We have a similar challenge before us. If a common identity is forged from shared values and shared purpose, on what foundation will we build our future? To what common project can we devote our energies? What are our ambitions and how best might we fulfill them? These are the questions that we need to answer if we are ever to rebuild the bonds of trust.

– Greg


Image: Unsplash



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