Econstudentlog

Trust

“A commonplace argument in contemporary writing on trust is that we would all be better off if we were all more trusting, and therefore we should all trust more […] Current writings commonly focus on trust as somehow the relevant variable in explaining differences across cases of successful cooperation. Typically, however, the crucial variable is the trustworthiness of those who are to be trusted or relied upon. […] It is not trust per se, but trusting the right people that makes for successful relationships and happiness.”

“If we wish to understand the role of trust in society […], we must get beyond the flaccid – and often wrong – assumption that trust is simply good. This supposition must be heavily qualified, because trusting the malevolent or the radically incompetent can be foolish and often even grossly harmful. […] trust only make[s] sense in dealings with those who are or who could be induced to be trustworthy. To trust the untrustworthy can be disastrous.”

That it’s stupid to trust people who cannot be trusted should in my opinion be blatantly obvious, yet somehow to a lot of people it doesn’t seem to be at all obvious; in light of this problem (…I maintain that this is indeed a problem) the above observations are probably among the most important ones included in Hardin’s book. The book includes some strong criticism of much of the current/extant literature on trust. The two most common fields of study within this area of research are game-theoretic ‘trust games’, which according to the author are ill-named as they don’t really seem to be dealing much, if at all, with the topic of trust, and (poor) survey research which asks people questions which are hard to answer and tend to yield answers which are even harder to interpret. I have included below a few concluding remarks from the chapter on these topics:

“Both of the current empirical research programs on trust are largely misguided. The T-games [‘trust-games’], as played […] do not elicit or measure anything resembling ordinary trust relations; and their findings are basically irrelevant to the modeling and assessment of trust and trustworthiness. The only thing that relates the so-called trust game […] to trust is its name, which is wrong and misleading. Survey questions currently in wide use are radically unconstrained. They therefore force subjects to assume the relevant degrees of constraint, such as how costly the risk of failed cooperation would be. […] In sum, therefore, there is relatively little to learn about trust from these two massive research programs. Without returning their protocols to address standard conceptions of trust, they cannot contribute much to understanding trust as we generally know it, and they cannot play a very constructive role in explaining social behavior, institutions, or social and political change. These are distressing conclusions because both these enterprises have been enormous, and in many ways they have been carried out with admirable care.”

There is ‘relatively little to learn about trust from these two massive research programs’, but one to me potentially important observation, hidden away in the notes at the end of the book, is perhaps worth mentioning here: “There is a commonplace claim that trust will beget trustworthiness […] Schotter [as an aside this guy was incidentally the author of the Micro textbook we used in introductory Microeconomics] and Sopher (2006) do not find this to be true in game experiments that they run, while they do find that trustworthiness (cooperativeness in the play of games) does beget trust (or cooperation).”

There were a few parts of the coverage which confused me somewhat until it occurred to me that the author might not have read Boyd and Richerson, or other people who might have familiarized him with their line of thinking and research (once again, you should read Boyd and Richerson).

Moving on, a few remarks on social capital:

“Like other forms of capital and human capital, social capital is not completely fungible but may be specific to certain activities. A given form of social capital that is valuable in facilitating certain actions may be useless or even harmful for others. […] [A] mistake is the tendency to speak of social capital as though it were a particular kind of thing that has generalized value, as money very nearly does […] it[‘s value] must vary in the sense that what is functional in one context may not be in another.”

It is important to keep in mind that trust which leads to increased cooperation can end up leading to both good outcomes and bad:

“Widespread customs and even very local practices of personal networks can impose destructive norms on people, norms that have all of the structural qualities of interpersonal capital. […] in general, social capital has no normative valence […] It is generally about means for doing things, and the things can be hideously bad as well as good, although the literature on social capital focuses almost exclusively on the good things it can enable and it often lauds social capital as itself a wonderful thing to develop […] Community and social capital are not per se good. It is a grand normative fiction of our time to suppose that they are.”

The book has a chapter specifically about trust on the internet which related to the coverage included in Barak et al.‘s book, a publication which I have unfortunately neglected to blog (this book of course goes into a lot more detail). A key point in that chapter is that the internet is not really all that special in terms of these things, in the sense that to the extent that it facilitates coordination etc., it can be used to accomplish beneficial things as well as harmful things – i.e. it’s also neutrally valenced. Barak et al.‘s book has a lot more stuff about how this medium impacts communication and optimal communication strategies etc., which links in quite a bit with trust aspects, but I won’t go into this stuff here and I’m pretty sure I’ve covered related topics before here on the blog, e.g. back when I covered Hargie.

The chapter about terrorism and distrust had some interesting observations. A few quotes:

“We know from varied contexts that people can have a more positive view of individuals from a group than they have of the group.”

“Mere statistical doubt in the likely trustworthiness of the members of some identifiable group can be sufficient to induce distrust of all members of the group with whom one has no personal relationship on which to have established trust. […] This statistical doubt can trump relational considerations and can block the initial risk-taking that might allow for a test of another individual’s trustworthiness by stereotyping that individual as primarily a member of some group. If there are many people with whom one can have a particular beneficial interaction, narrowing the set by excluding certain stereotypes is efficient […] Unfortunately, however, excluding very systematically on the basis of ethnicity or race becomes pervasively destructive of community relations.”

One thing to keep in mind here is that people’s stereotypes are often quite accurate. When groups don’t trust each other it’s always a lot of fun to argue about who’s to blame for that state of affairs, but it’s important here to keep in mind that both groups will always have mental models of both the in-group and the out-group (see also the coverage below). Also it should be kept in mind that to the extent that people’s stereotypes are accurate, blaming stereotyping behaviours for the problems of the people who get stereotyped is conceptually equivalent to blaming people for discriminating against untrustworthy people by not trusting people who are not trustworthy. You always come back to the problem that what’s at the heart of the matter is never just trust, but rather trustworthiness. To the extent that the two are related, trust follows trustworthiness, not the other way around.

“There’s a fairly extensive literature on so-called generalized trust, which is trust in the anonymous or general other person, including strangers, whom we might encounter, perhaps with some restrictions on what isues would come under that trust. […] [Generalized trust] is an implausible notion. In any real-world context, I trust some more than others and I trust any given person more about some things than about others and more in some contexts than in others. […] Whereas generalized trust or group-generalized trust makes little or no sense (other than as a claim of optimism), group-generalized distrust in many contexts makes very good sense. If you were Jewish, Gypsy, or gay, you had good reason to distrust all officers of the Nazi state and probably most citizens in Nazi Germany as well. American Indians of the western plains had very good reason to distrust whites. During Milosevic’s wars and pogroms, Serbs, Croatians, and Muslims in then Yugoslavia had increasingly good reasons to distrust most members of the other groups, especially while the latter were acting as groups. […] In all of these cases, distrust is defined by the belief that members of the other groups and their representatives are hostile to one’s interests. Trust relationships between members of these various groups are the unusual cases that require explanation; the relatively group-generalized distrust is easy to understand and justify.”

“In the current circumstances of mostly Arab and Islamic terrorism against israel and the West and much of the rest of the world, it is surely a very tiny fraction of all Arabs and Islamists who are genuinely a threat, but the scale of their threat may make many Israelis and westerners wary of virtually all Arabs and Islamists […] many who are not prospects for taking terrorist action evidently sympathize with and even support these actions”

“When cooperation is organized by communal norms, it can become highly exclusionary, so that only members of the community can have cooperative relations with those in the community. In such a case, the norms of cooperativeness are norms of exclusion […] For many fundamentalist groups, continued loyalty to the group and its beliefs is secured by isolating the group and its members from many other influences so that relations within the community are governed by extensive norms of exclusion. When this happens, it is not only trust relations but also basic beliefs that are constrained. If we encounter no one with contrary beliefs our own beliefs will tend to prevail by inertia and lack of questioning and they will be reinforced by our secluded, exclusionary community. There are many strong, extreme beliefs about religious issues as well as about many other things. […] The two matters for which such staunch loyalty to unquestioned beliefs are politically most important are probably religious and nationalist commitments […] Such beliefs are often maintained by blocking our alternative views and by sanctioning those within the group who stray. […] Narrowing one’s associations to others in an isolated extremist group cripples one’s epistemology by blocking out general questioning of the group’s beliefs […] To an outsider those beliefs might be utterly crazy. Indeed, virtually all strong religious beliefs sound crazy or silly to those who do not share them. […] In some ways, the internet allows individuals and small groups to be quite isolated while nevertheless maintaining substantial contact with others of like mind. Islamic terrorists in the West can be almost completely isolated individually while maintaining nearly instant, frequent contact with other and with groups in the Middle East, Pakistan, or Afghanistan, as well as with groups of other potential terrorists in target nations.”

December 7, 2015 - Posted by | anthropology, books, culture, disagreement, economics, Game theory, Psychology, religion

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