Lenin Was Wrong

Troy Camplin writes:

In the newest issue of Scientific American, there's an article on the molecular biology of trust. Research on trust seems to show that people are much more trustworthy when you trust them than they are when you don't trust them. When people think they are trusted, they produce oxytocin, which makes them feel warm toward the trusting person, and want to reward them by being trustworthy. In other words, if you do unto others as you would have them do unto you, they will reciprocate.

What this means is that one can get into a vicious circle, for if you have someone who does not trust people, they will typically not find themselves disappointed in that belief. A person who does not trust people creates untrustworthiness in others. If you expect people to screw you over, they will.

On the other hand, you can stop this vicious circle by trusting. These studies show that people are much more likely to act in a trustworthy manner if you show them that you trust them. Sure, you will sometimes be disappointed and have someone cheat you, but you will be cheated far less if you trust people than if you don't trust people.
I don't think that last sentence is right. The point of not trusting is putting yourself in a position where you can't be cheated: If you don't lend Andy a hundred Euros, you can be certain not to lose the money. The problem is that this makes it unlikely that Andy is going to lend you any money when you're in need. If you both lend each other money and both give it back, you both profit. There are gains from cooperation; it's a non-zero sum game.

I have read neither the Scientific American piece nor the research papers it's based on (Camplin doesn't provide any author names, so I couldn't even google abstracts), but if this is correct, it provides evidence for an idea that Pjotr Sztompka submitted in his book Trust: A Sociological Theory: There is such a thing as evocative trust.

Until today, I had never heard of any research confirming that, but it always struck me as plausible. When I had known a former girlfriend for only a few days, she told me (without me having asked) that she had had an abortion a few years back. A rather intimate piece of information, easily abused. I think the main reason for that was that she wanted to show that she trusted me, thereby evoking trust. (I never quizzed her about her motivations; it didn't seem like the topic she wanted to give too much detail on.)

The philosopher Russel Hardin gave another reason for trusting: If you start out underestimating people's trustworthiness and act accordingly, you're never going to learn whether your estimate is correct - you're never going to learn whether Andy would have given you the money back. If you start out overestimating trustworthiness, you're sometimes going to get cheated, can adjust your estimates accordingly and will finally arrive at a pretty accurate estimate.

A quote which (interestingly?) has become a German proverb and is ascribed to Lenin is: "Trust is good, control is better." This article (German) says that although no source can be found for this quote, it sums up his views on the topic pretty accurately. It seems Lenin got this completely wrong. Like so many things.


Troy Camplin said...

Actually, the last line should be read this way:

"Sure, you will sometimes be disappointed and have someone cheat you, but you will be cheated far less [by other people] if you trust people [in general] than if you don't trust people [in general]." True, you won't get cheated by Andy or anyone else if you don't lend them money, but there are many other ways one can get cheated -- including through lost opportunities. People will also be more likely to try to cheat you with things like bad deals if you don't show them trust. That's what was meant by the last line.

The author, by the way was Paul J. Zak, "The Neurobiology of Trust" in the May , 2008 issue of Scientific American.

LemmusLemmus said...

You're the native speaker, but I wouldn't call withholding opportunities (gains from cooperation) cheating. Whether being given bad deals is cheating depends on the details. If you just pay an above-market price voluntarily, I have no problem with that. If you're given wrong information about the product you get, that's a different matter.

Troy Camplin said...

Well, being cheated an opportunity is admittedly the weakest example -- and not the one I was really interested in focusing on. The real point is that if you don't trust people, they will find opportunities to cheat you that they would otherwise not have sought out. It's sort of, "If he doesn't trust me anyway . . ."

LemmusLemmus said...

O.k., I see what you mean, and you're probably right.