* The article by the CNRS researcher in Paris, Hugo Mercier, was published in Aeon. Aeon is an online magazine that asks big questions, looking for fresh answers and a new perspective on social reality, science, philosophy and culture. NEWS 24/7 republishes a story every week for those who love original thinking on topics old and new.
We all know people who have suffered from too much trust: betrayed clients, abandoned lovers, rejected friends. In fact, most of us have been “burned out” by misplaced confidence. These personal and indirect experiences lead us to believe that people are overly trusting, often bordering on naive.
In fact, we don’t trust enough.
Take data on trust in the United States (the same would be true at least in most wealthy democracies). Interpersonal trust, a measure of whether people believe others are generally trustworthy, is at its lowest level in nearly 50 years. However, people are unlikely to be any less trustworthy than before: the huge drop in crime in recent decades suggests otherwise. Trust in the media is also at an all time low, despite the fact that the mainstream outlets have an impressive (if not impeccable) record of accuracy.
Meanwhile, trust in science has held up comparatively well, with most people trusting scientists most of the time. Yet in at least some areas, from climate change to vaccination, a portion of the population does not trust science enough, with disastrous consequences.
Social scientists have a variety of tools to study how trusting and trustworthy people are. The most popular is the game of trust, in which two participants play, usually anonymously. The first participant is given a small amount of money, say $10, and is asked to decide how much to transfer to the other participant. The amount transferred is then tripled, and the second participant chooses how much to return to the first. At least in Western countries, trust is rewarded: the more money the first party transfers, the more money the second party sends, and therefore the more money the first party gets. However, newbies transfer on average only half of the money they have received. In some studies, a variation was introduced in which participants knew each other’s ethnic origin. Prejudices led participants to mistrust certain groups – Israeli men of Eastern origin (Asian and African immigrants and their Israeli-born descendants) or black students in South Africa – transferring less money to them, despite the fact that these groups proved to be just as trustworthy as the more respected groups.
If people and institutions are more trustworthy than we think, why don’t we get it right? Why don’t we trust more?
In 2017, social scientist Toshio Yamagishi was kind enough to invite me to his apartment in Mashida, a city in the Tokyo metropolitan area. The cancer that would take his life a few months later had weakened him, but he retained his youthful enthusiasm for research and his keen mind. On this occasion, we discuss an idea of his with profound implications for the topic: the information asymmetry between trust and mistrust.
When you trust someone, you come to understand whether your trust was justified or not.. An acquaintance asks you if he can sleep at your house for a few days. If you accept, you will know if he is a good guest or not. A colleague advises you to get a new software application. If he follows his advice, he’ll discover if the new software works better than he’s used to.
Conversely, when you don’t trust someone, most of the time you never find out if you should have trusted that person. If you don’t invite your acquaintance, you won’t know if they would be a good guest or not. If you don’t follow your colleague’s advice, you won’t know if the new software application is really better, and therefore if your colleague is giving you good advice in this area.
This information asymmetry means that we learn more by trusting than by not trusting. Furthermore, when we trust, we learn not only about specific people, but more generally about the kinds of situations in which we should and should not trust. We become better when we trust.
Yamagishi and his colleagues demonstrated the learning advantages of trust. Their experiments were similar to trust games, but the participants could interact with each other before making a decision to transfer money (or not) to the other. The more trusting participants were better at determining who would be trusted or to whom they should transfer money.
We find the same pattern in other areas. People who trust the media more are more knowledgeable about politics and news. The more people trust science, the more scientific knowledge they will have. Even if this evidence remains correlational, it stands to reason that the people who trust the most should know who to trust best. In trust as in anything else, Practice makes perfect.
Yamagishi’s insight gives us reason to be confident. But then the mystery reaches its peak: if trust provides such learning opportunities, we must trust too much, rather than not enough. Ironically, the very reason why we should trust more, the fact that we gain more information by trusting than by not trusting, can make us tend to trust less.
When our trust is betrayed, when we trust someone we shouldn’t trust, the cost is significant and our reaction ranges from annoyance to anger to despair. The benefit, what we learned from our mistake, is easy to miss. By contrast, the cost of not trusting someone we can trust is, as a rule, invisible. We don’t know the friendship we could have created (if we let that acquaintance sleep in our place). We don’t realize how useful some tips would be (if we were to use our colleague’s tips on the new software application).
We don’t trust enough because the cost of misplaced trust is all too obvious, whereas the (learning) benefits of mistrust, as well as the costs of mistrust, are largely hidden. We should consider these hidden costs and benefits: think about what we learn by trusting the people we could befriend, the knowledge we could gain.
Giving people a chance isn’t just about morality. It’s also the smartest thing to do.