Understanding Trust and How it Works

January 13, 2018 594 0 0

Today I was reading an article about non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, which for those of you who don’t know, basically means preventing nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of irresponsible and unsavoury men (as if they already aren’t in the hands of such men already), and I learnt a valuable lesson about trust. Yep, trust. The article defined trust interestingly, describing it as the tether binding two people together who enter that relationship knowing they may increase their own vulnerability because they ultimately cannot control the behaviour of the “other”, which may involve potential negative consequences for themselves.

Annette Baier summarises it best: “trust is acceptance of vulnerability to harm that others could inflict, but which we judge that they will not in fact inflict”. When entering into such a relationship, you make a judgement about how to relate to the other party, usually assuming that there is a strong expectation you won’t face the negative consequences for the decision to trust the other actor(s).

There are generally two main types of trust. The first one I will outline will be called rationalist trust. This approach is focused more on the importance of shared interests in the establishment of trust.

Just to illustrate, in a relationship between two individuals you trust the other actor because you assume it is in their best interest to take your interests seriously or because they are presumed to be mutual. Russel Hardin calls this an ‘encapsulated trust’. In this understanding of trust as an ‘encapsulated’ interest, Hardin stresses the relational nature of the trust, its essential character being the structure of the pay-off for both parties involved in the relationship. It would appear that this is a solid basis for a relationship, right? Okay, let me explain why this is wrong with reference to Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

In the story a lieutenant-colonel engages in a series of commercial exchanges with a small local merchant. The lieutenant-colonel who is responsible for overseeing the army’s money, loans some to the merchant regularly, with an added interest payment. Both the merchant and the lieutenant-colonel are winning. In the story the lieutenant-colonel is eventually transferred and requests the full sum back from the merchant for an outstanding loan, and the merchant, aware that the lieutenant-colonel was going to leave whatever happened, refused to pay. The basis for their relationship – increased profits for both – broke down because it was no longer in the merchants’ interest to maintain his side of the bargain. The structure of the pay off for the merchant changed, because his interest in increasing his profits was eventually best served at the expense of the lieutenant-colonel who got the short end of the stick.

You see trusting relationships which depend solely upon interest-based calculations are vulnerable to changes in the pay-off structure of the interactions. Once the distribution of pay-offs from cooperation changes, for example, because of the changed circumstances of one of the players (as in Dostoyevsky’s story), there will be an incentive to abandon cooperation. The relationship breaks down and our vulnerabilities are taken advantage of. Martin Hollis says, “although trust is an obvious fact of life, it is an exasperating one. Like the flight of the bumblebee it works in practice but not in theory”. And he’s right.

In reality, the lieutenant-colonel would have been perfectly aware that the merchant could potentially have stolen from him, and operating with a view to this “shadow future” could have taken the necessary precautions to prevent this possibility; like taking collateral. This would solve the conundrum of trusting another as presented by Hollis, because the collateral would impact the pay-off structure of the relationship in a way that would prevent the merchant from attempting to pull a fast one.

This relationship then works in theory too, and potentially in practice but for me that would be a misunderstanding of the message Hollis is trying to convey. Trust isn’t about ensuring that you aren’t vulnerable in a relationship, its about recognizing that vulnerability, but still valuing and participating in the relationship irrespective.

The defining feature of the rationalist approach to building trust is that actors do not ascribe any particular normative value to such relationships. There is only a mutual interest and a recognition of that mutuality, i.e. loaning money to a merchant who promises returns with interest. But in strong, lasting relationships actors develop trusting relationships which they value independently of the existing pay-off structure. This is the binding approach to trust. The binding approach to trust rests on the notion that actors will always unconditionally honour their promises. It puts emphasis on the normative meaning that the relationship has for those who establish it. To trust in this case is to expect that the other actor will do what is required to maintain the relationship, because both value its continuation. This places emphasis on the normative meaning of the relationship, as opposed to “what I get out of it”.

In a trusting relationship of this kind there is nothing that guarantees the preservation and growth of trust. In such a relationship, if I’m bluntly honest there is no escape from uncertainty and the possibility of betrayal. It literally does work in practice but certainly cannot be theoretically defended if you’re a wary person. Trust can be enhanced and grow but in just a moment, one lethal misjudgement can completely undermine its foundations, tearing down what might have previously been a palace, to rubble and ash in seconds. What’s interesting about this approach is that trust is viewed as an ongoing process, not simply an arrangement with pre-agreed terms for the distribution of some material benefit. You take a risk and hope for the best.

Funnily enough the article also made suggestions for how to enhance trust in the context of non-proliferation which I believe to have very useful insights for other human relationships. (You know, the kinds normal people are involved in, which don’t involve weapons of mass destruction). The authors suggested an increased exchange of reliable information, greater acceptance of mutual interdependence and confidence that the other actor will do what’s necessary to preserve and maintain the relationship.

So long as each party feels like they are in control and there is no threat to what they currently control, trust sustains. But when two people or two nations start to distrust one-another, this opens up the possibility of apathy, exploitation or violence.

My two cents; don’t enter into any kind of trusting relationship with a person of questionable character, and if you have to, remain vigilant. Focus on making it justifiable theoretically, so that you take the necessary precautions to minimize your vulnerability. But if you truly value a relationship and want to base it on firm foundations, it’s probably wiser to avoid thinking about the relationship in terms of “what I get out of it”, but rather the “what does this mean to me”. Never be the person who destroys trust of this kind and be patient when in doubt, for patience is beautiful. And our help is with God.

Faisal Ali is an Istanbul based British journalist working for TRT World. He completed his studies as a Jameel Scholar at the Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK at Cardiff University. His interests include trends, popular culture, art and politics.

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