From Distrust to Trust
“You must trust and believe in people or life becomes impossible.” Anton Chekhov
21 February 2021
Every soup needs salt as an ingredient, but too much of it spoils our appetite. And so it is with the exchange of information and opinions between humans: while we enjoy communication, we all need a healthy dose of distrust to protect us from misunderstandings and disappointments.
From a functional point of view, an exchange is only possible if we have a predominantly positive expectation of not being harmed. When we think about trust or distrust, the question therefore concerns how expectations arise, under what conditions they change and how we can operate with them.
The terms trust and distrust are complementary. Although we usually have a natural propensity to trust,
our reactions to new information are usually a mixture of both.
Distrust is understood here as the predominance of the lack of trust.
Distrust is presently a serious issue for society. This article focuses on a little-addressed cause of distrust that the author believes is virulent: Technological progress is faster than the process of its integration into our culture. This is an issue we do not like to talk about. However, we should deal with the issue in a responsible manner in order to counteract social tensions.
The Internet under suspicion
The obvious suspect for affecting trust is the medium through which we communicate.
Since the Internet has established itself as the dominant medium of exchange, distrust has become more and more pronounced in our global civilisation. This goes against human nature, which is designed for physical face-to-face communication, not electronic devices.
There is the apt new term "emotional inflammation" for the state in which our societies now find themselves.
The disturbance of our public communication and the surge of distrust is a serious issue that will not pass like rainy weather. No lamentation, no longing for a more pleasant past will help. Nor is it enough to issue admonishments.
So there is reason to think more deeply about the hygiene of our communication and to have good-will debates about an exchange of views that is beneficial for modern society.
Pharmacology as a quick fix?
In 1906 Henry Dale discovered oxytocin. This is a natural hormone
that, among other things, triggers a feeling of connection and trust in people. This leads to the tempting question of whether we should endeavour to tame the increasing distrust in society by asking people to take oxytocin. We could take it regularly as a nasal spray. After all, many people take the hormone melatonin to sleep better. (And sometimes we suffer from an overdose of adrenaline).
Several arguments can be made against this pharmaceutical approach, and one of them is sufficient: it would be easy for people who do not take the hormone to deceive people with artificially enhanced trust.
Whom we trust (or don’t)
Typically these are
• family members, friends, colleagues, acquaintances
• other members of associations serving a shared purpose (sports clubs, political parties, charities, religious institutions)
• elected representatives (mayors, members of parliament)
• experts (dentists, architects, tax advisers, car mechanics)
• professionals who are paid for being trustworthy (judges, trustees)
• wise individuals who offer us experience or ethical guidance (religion, philosophy).
The closer a person is to your heart, the deeper the default level of trust. But if there is a disappointment, it hurts terribly. The decision to change over to distrust can be drastic.
Executives and leaders were and are more exposed to distrust than other individuals.
It does not appear that there have been significant changes in this area in recent years.
Groups of individuals
We all spend a good part of our lives in more or less tightly-knit groups. These are, for example our sports club, neighbours, supporters of a political party or alumni of a school or university. We tend to feel comfortable in groups which we have chosen and which hardly ever let us think about the subject of trust at all.
Here too, it is difficult to detect significant changes.
Institutions, public and private, which are exposed to social media
It is clearly the institutional part of modern society that is most likely to ignite distrust which spreads and becomes unmanageable.
Government, large companies, audit firms, police, banks, healthcare institutions, insurance companies . . . Mostly these are entities with a high public profile.
People who in recent years have developed the habit of spreading observations, assumptions and thoughts via social media tend to feel little pressure to check the factual pertinence or accuracy of these. They are particularly interested in institutions that are well-known and considered powerful. If distrust prevails in respect of something which a seasoned user of social media considers as an important matter, (s)he will spread this in the usual way. The costs of this are zero. Users have learned to reach many other people with similar predispositions.
An avalanche sets itself in motion. The recipients pick up the message, endorse it, perhaps add something to it, and arrange for further distribution. The herd instinct sets in.
Public reverberation gives the members of the media circle a feeling of confirmation and meaning.
When observers perceive a powerful “news avalanche”, many of them and even the cautious ones may be impressed and tend to conclude that there must be at least some substance to it. The coming together of a large mass of people can create a sense of rightness and legitimacy. The deliberate creation of this feeling has had devastating consequences in the past, especially in the last century. Nonetheless it works again and again because people tend to give in to their natural tribal instincts.
The methods used to deny facts and to stir up distrust are almost classic and have been functioning according to the same recipes for decades:
They are primitive and they work, mostly without integrating the participants on divisive issues. They just get mobilised together.
Banerji, Duflo, Good Economics for Hard Times, 2019, p. 128-135
Even though the professional media themselves may become the target of news avalanches (alleged “producers of fake news”), they may also conclude that they benefit from participating in turmoil in the social media space by reporting, commenting and pouring more kerosene into the fire a controversy. After all, their earnings may be linked to the number of the consumers of their reports and comments, not to their correctness and not their fairness.
In the professional news business as well, there have been and will always be players that prefer to focus on sensationalism. That is their right, protected by the constitutions. They choose to remain deliberately below their potential and their ability to research and process factual news.
All those involved in the process of amplification and dissemination enrich their utility functions in different ways.
It is the cycle marked in red, where emotions mix with arbitrarily selected or randomly received information about facts and may ignite a communicative fire.
Celebrities who have established a high public profile as part of their ‘business model’ can pick up a topic in social media and bring in their own opinion. This further heats up the process which is sometimes drastically labelled “shit storm”.
The legal system’s lines of defence against this overwhelming non-professional "conjectural sphere" are weak. It has traditional instruments such as the prohibition of defamation or, to some extent, injunctions against false allegations. However the legal system does not have the clout to slow down or stop mass phenomena. This is not an expression of weakness, but of the necessary respect for freedom of expression and freedom of the press.
The competitive edge of the professional media without the propensity to engage in social media (“1 o'clock” in the chart inserted above) lies in their ability to systematically gather information and to analyse and communicate it. Whereas the use of their skills underlines their importance for society, the contagion from the modes of operation of social media would undermine it. Giving in to amateurs by ruminating non-professionally produced “news” melts the ice floe on which professional media sit. The unfortunate economic development of the commercial news industry in recent years shows that there is no solid land here, only fragile ice.
In some areas trust is consistently created and reliably maintained
In some sectors of society, experts have developed instruments that enable risks giving rise to distrust to be controlled with a high degree of certainty. Many people do not even think of distrust when they deal with the risks managed by these sectors. Even very distrustful people make use of the possibilities when e.g. they need to consult a dentist and don’t get any doubts about their health insurance’s capability and willingness to cover the expenditure.
Here are a few examples of approaches that give some indications of how the opposite of the distrust that bothers us today can develop:
The most natural and simplest way to create and maintain trust is to be reliable over long periods of time, i.e. not to give rise to distrust. We can experience such successes with all contracts that have been concluded for a long period of time. Examples are rent and employment agreements. Continuous compliance with the terms of an agreement generates solid trust and a feeling of comfort on both sides.
In financial services, there is additional precision in measuring trust: prices are calculated to express exposure to risk. The better the credit standing of a counterparty (= trust), the shorter the lifetime of a default risk, the lower the price will be for taking a risk. Debtors with a history of defaults need to pay a high premium to investors who are prepared to incur the risk of another default.
On the other hand, debtors with a very good standing are able to incur very long term debt. Here is an impressive example: In 1624 the Dutch Lekdijk Bovendams water board issued a perpetual debenture with a coupon of 2.5% to finance the restoration of a lifesaving 33 kilometre long dike from Amerongen to Vreeswijk. The word “perpetual” implies that the initial subscribers’ trust was infinite. They did not require the repayment of the capital and trusted that the interest would always be paid. In fact, the value of the security has been preserved to this day, as the interest continues to flow to the holders of the debentures every year.
The saying "the wallet is the most sensitive organ of the human body" is not correct, yet it leads to important arguments.
When it comes to our savings, most of us are hypersensitive. If we have acted carelessly and made mistakes in this area, we feel ashamed and remain silent.
We are well advised to be cautious about investments. Professional investors have the advantage of being able to express categories such as time, amounts and diversification in numbers and calculate probabilities. The analysis of figures from the past makes it possible to identify default risks and correlations to better determine probabilities for the future. Mathematics reduces the breeding ground for distrust.
Within the scope of the guidelines for a given portfolio (e.g. “energy stocks” or “emerging markets debt”), investment managers are in a position to reduce risks considerably. Rather than taking bets, they can rely on sophisticated procedures to diversify risks while maximising opportunities. The basis for this is the “Modern Portfolio Theory” (MPT) for which Harry Markowitz was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1990.
The methodology applies to both discretionary and automated ("quantitative") asset management.
Sophisticated rule-driven diversification can be compared to the suspension of a car, which gives a reasonably quiet driving experience even on bumpy roads and therefore inspires confidence.
Of course there are also exceptional situations where sophisticated diversification is not sufficient to avoid painful losses. But this does not fundamentally undermine trust. Despite the best suspension, nobody would expect a car to glide smoothly through a scree field.
There are cultural differences from one population to the other with regard to the inclination to pay a trusted company for eliminating (completely or partially) risk factors emanating from human behaviour, but the model of insurance for the elimination of distrust is universal. Incidentally, insurance companies also apply systems based on Modern Portfolio Theory to manage the assets they need to compensate their customers' losses.
Well balanced and well thought out communication with clients and the outside world make an additional contribution to the maintenance of trust.
The institutions cited as examples are not exempt from social distrust; there can be a hiccup from time to time. But normally they have the means to reduce distrust to tolerable levels. Trust is the - refutable - default position.
One common feature of these examples is that the variables that cause trust to develop are limited in number and manageable and can be calculated. These “islands of trust” are exceptions, but important ones. Unfortunately, the methods that have been successful here cannot be used to measure leaps in technical innovation. Their trigger is often a coincidence or the persistence of a single person (or a combination of both). It is almost impossible to predict something like this.
Media professionals back to the driver's seat
In team sports, you win by studying and exploiting the strengths and weaknesses of the opposing team. The strategy to win is based on bypassing the strengths and attacking the weak spots of the other side. Realism counts. Initiative counts.
The current surge of social mistrust is linked to a feeling of collective insecurity. The reality is that industrial societies are at the beginning of fast and powerful technological developments that are accelerating and will not be stopped. While we sense the beginnings, we have no idea where they will take us and how we should cope with them.
The record speed at which pharmacologists have developed vaccines against the Covid pandemic using completely new and scalable methods gives us a flavour of what is possible and is good news for us. But what about genetic engineering, nano technology, Artificial Intelligence, machine learning, quantum computing, compact nuclear fusion reactors and, most worrisome, robotic process automation in factories and offices? The list is long. What are the effects of the upcoming technologies on the life of the individual? What will happen to us if a bot looks over our shoulders and quickly learns what work we do every day and then does 90% of our work at top speed without ever getting tired? Will we still play a relevant role in production and services at all? Will we still have a private sphere?
When you ask professionals about the subject, the usual response is "I hope it will be a long time before that happens".
Very many people today feel like sheep who suspect that an eagle is hovering above them. They sense a vague threat and prefer to focus on other issues.
The scarcity of easily available and understandable information on the implications of the imminent technological changes is a very sensitive weak spot which the amateurs running the social media sphere successfully exploit. From a tactical point of view, they are realistic and they show initiative. However, they have no chance to understand and explain the new realities that are emerging. The generation of fear is not a reassuring explanation.
The professional media are in a strong position to harness existing strengths in this area by putting their decisive resources to the spotlight. There are a great many highly qualified journalists who understand research and development exactly and have frequent high-level exchanges with scientists. At the moment you will find them mainly on specialised websites that you need to know about. In the classic media they are not seen enough, and often their reports appear late. These journalists can explain implications of new technologies in a comprehensible manner. They need to have a much higher profile in the middle of the mainstream.
As new technologies are now recognisably bringing about substantial changes in society and triggering strong emotions, they should move up the media's list of priorities. If very good science journalists are on the first pages, they will trigger valuable social processes of opinion formation. As responsible citizens, we must not capitulate to the new industrial logic, but find a new modus vivendi.
The second burning issue is the necessity for the integrity of the economic and social leadership. This is particularly important in times of change. Here too, the professional media are in a position to lead. In recent years, they have advanced the instrument of investigative journalism with new methods of research and started to make valuable contributions.
Some media have already recognised this and are acting accordingly. The search for integrity in society starts in the same way as empirical science. It is always about the search for facts.
The fact that integrity makes an economy more competitive is recognised. This is why increasingly, the investigative journalists enjoy the backing of legislators who protect "whistle-blowers". In contrast to the social media, the professional media are able to dig deep and find out facts on a large scale, while amateurs from the social media sphere can only conjecture.
Clearly the professional media can reassert their superiority without changing the structure of their business models. They only need to acknowledge the new priorities and position the right journalists prominently. It is a question of their strategic decisions and whether and to what extent and in which areas they use them.
This applies regardless of which media they use to reach their clients.
The social media will continue to be active and part of the professional media will continue to try to sail in their slipstream. But when the power of reasonable opinion-forming has regained dominance, we will get the right dialogues to let trust grow.
The return of the professional media to the throne will not be enough
The technological hockey stick, the lower part of which we can now see,
will be a reality for many years to come, because the new research results and the further lines of development derived from them are most unlikely to end up on the shelf. The food is on the cooker, it will be eaten.
However, many people may feel more comfortable and safer not to follow proposed changes. We may like the change mode at low speed and with manageable implications. But now our societies experience that progress pushes us into a permanent change mode. There is no historical precedent for this.
If an industrial society does not want to fall behind internationally, it has no alternative but to convince its citizens of the personal and collective benefits of change. This is not easy even for vaccines against a viral pandemic. The use of coercion is conceivable, but not a valid option.
Militant refuseniks who believe they will find salvation in rejecting progress and are confident that the storm will pass would cause backwardness. They are a serious threat to society.
The processes of technology driven societal change is in its first phase. It will be stormy. And the impact will be more painful if a large number of people decide to sabotage and rely on nebulous distrust instead of preparing for facts.
Beyond the media
Now the question arises as to where there are other avenues, beyond the professional media, for creating a healthy level of trust.
Culture of trust
Wouldn't it be nice if we could always rely on the honesty of other people? Then we wouldn't have to worry, for example, if we accidentally left a mobile phone on the underground. We would get it back quickly. Actually, there is a striking example at the heart of a highly industrialised society:
The Lost & Found office in Tokyo not only returns lost items with a high degree of reliability. It also gives people a warm feeling of security and solidarity.
Even though almost everyone will find such conditions desirable, we have to understand that they are the result of long cultural developments. Cultures can inspire each other, but this cannot be done simply by creating a spark. So, unfortunately, this approach is not the fix we are looking for.
Trust is an important topic in economics, especially in the field of “behavioural economics”. Here, scientists do not postulate a certain behaviour which they have calculated as optimal, but they conduct experiments and search for regularities and possibilities of influencing human behaviour.
Many economists have been inspired by Kenneth Arrow, who described trust as the "lubricant of social systems"
In fact, doing business is much easier if we can easily give our counterparty the benefit of the doubt in a transaction.
When I am sure that the fruit dealer will not put any rotten apples in my bag and he is sure that the banknote I give him is not counterfeit, the exchange is fast and pleasant. However, if someone is planning to buy a house, (s)he is better off hiring an architect to check the condition of the building in detail. And anyone who opens an account for a little business at a bank during this time can hardly believe what research the bank is obliged to carry out ("KYC") to verify the identity and seriousness of the new client. Transaction costs hinder and slow down, but sometimes they are unavoidable.
The lower the average transaction costs in an economy and the more reliable state institutions (courts, land registries etc.) support this, the more welfare effects it generates and the better is its position in international competition. General trust has a positive effect on average income.
There are countries with a very high level of mutual trust and thus economic efficiency. The Scandinavians hold world records. Despite high prices and unfavourable locations, they permanently maintain a position of strength in international competition.
https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1008&context=politicalsciencehendricks p. 3
But when the question is how to use economic science to strengthen social trust, little substance is found. Kenneth Arrow simply turned the question around and demanded that religion and science provide the conditions for the emergence of “the lubricant.”
It is astonishing to see that ethical requirements are introduced as building blocks into a science that is based on empiricism.
It appears that unfortunately no answer to our question will be found here.
Beginning with Georg Simmel,
sociologists have been dealing intensively with the question of how social trust works. From today's perspective, even the most patient reader may find it painful to see how little this school of thought based on systems theory has relied on empirical research.
On the other hand, Niklas Luhmann in particular
was at least able to define the essential questions so precisely that we should acknowledge them as useful. Luhmann’s language is not easy to digest (though many people find it inebriatingly beautiful), but the gist is simple: evolving social systems are complex and tend to generate distrust because of their lack of comprehensibility. This can be converted into legitimacy (= trust) through complex procedures of decision-making (e.g. judicial procedures) and communication. A society without a sufficient and consistent level of legitimacy falls apart: So there is a need for “trust through procedures”. Trust is understood as a mechanism for generating legitimacy.
Unfortunately no answers can be found to the crucial question of which procedures are optimal in which areas in order to strengthen trust in society. And in particular there is no answer to the question of how to introduce trust in technical processes of change into a modern society.
A pragmatic approach
If no concrete recommendations can be found among economists and sociologists, pragmatists should be entitled to rear their heads. A pragmatist knows that clear and comprehensible communication and a friendly fact-based dialogue create the best foundations for the growth of credible trust. When people understand something and approve it after independent deliberation and debate, many will move of their own free will. Others will not, but they cannot deny later that they had a fair chance.
The key question is therefore how to communicate to stressed citizens the technologies of the immediate future and their impact on their professions and private lives. While the pending issues are complex and not all implications can always be identified, we should do our best.
The answer could come from a physicist who has not only made most valuable contributions to science. He also received the highest recognition as a teacher and the admiration of his work did not end with his demise.
According to Richard Feynman’s opinion even the most complicated issues can be communicated in such a way that even a school child understands them. The schoolchild is the benchmark, not the expert. It can be very hard work to achieve this kind of comprehensibility, but it is always possible.
His approach was labelled the "Feynman technique". It has become popular, for good reasons.
The basic idea is that if you cannot explain something to a pupil, you have not understood it properly. Only if you have reached the level of thorough understanding, you can communicate properly. Then you will be understood.
The Feynman’s technique is universal. And there is nothing to be said against making the application of the method the standard. It is worth it, because this is the bridge between science and people who want to use or even understand its effects.
Not everyone can understand everything outside their field of expertise. However, everyone should easily have the opportunity to form a well-founded opinion about a technical subject. There should be no threshold. The possibility of easy access alone creates mutual respect and weakens those who work with nebulous assumptions. It also lays the foundations for much needed public debate.
This approach requires a lot of effort, but it should not be expensive. And hardly anything is more worthwhile when it comes to the urgent need to promote confidence in technical progress and to enable informed debate about it.
There are people who have trained the ability to explain technology perfectly without distorting facts: In many cases, animated videos created by scientists provide a proper understanding of a new technology.
Fuel cells: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5_lDGna9MBM
Robotic Process Automation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g-s-XXM2T_I
Since people prefer to listen to people, this is often the most convincing way to understand a technology:
Shohini Ghose on quantum computing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QuR969uMICM
Shane Crotty on COVID-19 vaccination: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eK0C5tFHze8
Ainissa Ramirez on solar cells : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q1brL8sccT4&t=16s
Harald Lesch on nuclear fusion: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nVTcirxdRWM
Harald Lesch has recently opened a YouTube channel for explaining scientific developments to pupils: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T10jMTh8Vzc
Many more people can acquire the skill. Using such specialists, the Ministries of Science can use all media, such as explain videos, podcasts, dedicated websites, TV programmes etc. to massively increase and cultivate citizens' understanding of new technologies and their impact on the world of work.
Scientists who meet Richard Feynman's criteria are the most valuable resource for enabling citizens to form their own opinions based on information. They have the authority and the greatest power to contain obscurantism. They deserve respect, applause and all the resources they may ask for. They serve the common good.
Our problem is that willingness to seriously engage with new technologies is not yet a common part of our cultures. And we are fortunate to have the people who can fill this gap.