The nature of trust

Trust is very important for many social activities. Be it trade, collaboration, or competition, the trust ensures fair game. We want to be trusted. This provides access to better deals, emotional support, and better sleep at night. What does it take to be trusted?


Before we go into a long discussion, I want to present the simple equation called 3Cs of Trust:

Competence * Character * Caring = Trust

Each C can be a number between 0 and 1. Multiplication means that all qualities must be present, otherwise, the trust is gone. Now let us try to derive it.

Prisoners dilemma

In the middle ages, life used to be tough, and trust was rare. I quote Shakespear from ‘All’s well that ends well’: “Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.”

In the prisoner’s dilemma game, once there is trust a very lucrative win-win solution can be used. If you hurt someone, he will not trust you and you will lose. He may even choose the worst lose-lose scenario, only to make sure you do not win. People who see this may also lose trust in you. When you love all, you assume that the initial offer will be win-win, otherwise you switch strategy. After several win-win situations, you start to trust enough to increase your bet planning further win-win results. Shakespeare presents a working algorithm for the prisoner’s dilemma game. A trustworthy person gets access to better deals.

People want to trust

Unless you do something stupid, people are quite likely to trust you. I quote Friedrich Nietzsche: I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you.” Did I tell you where I found this quote? Then why do you trust me?  Some people say this is a wrong attribution. Quotes are attributed all the time. I think Albert Einstein said less than a tenth of the stuff commonly attributed to him. Who wants to argue with a genius?

Checking what other people say is a hard job and usually, it does not get awarded. If you question somebody’s reputation you risk some kind of duel.  If you quote a trustworthy source, who in turn quotes a trustworthy source, all parties involved are trusted. The whole chain of trust may have started from an honest mistake, but instead of being fixed some mistakes become the ruling paradigm.

I will give you an exercise. Check the IQ level of Benjamin Netanyahu and where this number comes from. Hint: the chain is long the source unknown.

Maybe they choose to trust

“The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.”
Ernest Hemingway. Another popular misquote. The real quote is: “The way to make people trustworthy is to trust them.” It is found in the book “Ernest Hemingway Selected Letters 1917-1961”, edited by Carlos Baker. Don’t you just love the game of quotes? I wrote in google “the source of”  and the quote in parentheses.

What does it mean? When we choose to trust someone, other people are also likely to trust that person. We choose in whom we want to invest our trust, like a stock. Other people add their trust to the winning stock. The losing stock is not trustworthy. So why the American money and two places of Quran quite literally say “In God we trust“?

We trust our parents

Our initial unconditional trust is given to our parents. The God in the old testament is a figure not unlike father.  The Old Testament in Psalm 91:2, “I will say of the LORD, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust”.

The parents whom we trust are directly invested in our wellbeing. We can expect our parents to lie on certain occasions, to trick on others, but always support our best interests. When this basis of trust is broken, we are a sort of damaged goods: unable to trust anyone. This issue is quite common, especially when the parents are addicted or delusional.

I am sorry I do not trust even in American money since it stopped being backed up by gold. Honestly, it feels like a gamble. Sort of champion horse which will lose eventually but probably not today and not tomorrow.

Trust my luck

Napoleon used to say: “Against attempts on my life, I trust in my luck, my good genius, and my guards”. This starts to sound familiar. Napoleon understands that putting trust is a gamble, and hopes he has good chances. He outlines three elements for success. His own insight that served him well. People whose best interest is protecting him. And the most important element is a random one which is not in our control, so we may assume whatever makes us feel good.

Maybe I misinterpret Napoleon. After all, he used to say “Great men become great because they have been able to master luck. What the vulgar call luck is a characteristic of genius.

Ability to deliver

If we reframe luck as the ability to deliver, we get certain components that matter in commander or a business partner:

Competence is the knowledge and the resources required to deliver

Character is a measure of reputation based on prior deliveries

Caring is a combination of interest and passion,

With these qualities, we can trust the person to deliver. We should add guards or insurance against bad luck. 

What I miss from the equations are factors of time and scope. If the scope is not well defined, we can trust to get something different from what we expected. When the timing is not well-defined, we should also have a lot of patience.

This is something spouses often do to each other. They trust each other, and usually, they will not cheat, but they will surely procrastinate in their chores and do things nobody asked them to do.

How to look trustworthy?

There are several easy ways to appear trustworthy:

  • Certificates. Something to show that if we are not competent, we are at least trained. The certificates can be problematic. My PhD actually deals with math, medical imaging, financial derivatives, and engineering. Here I write as something else, perhaps a journalist.
  • Testimonies. There is nothing better to show character than the course of previous transactions. The bias favors big and established businesses. The thing is: they do not really care.
  • Responsivity.  A genuine interest in another person, prompt and meaningful response, ability to create flexible solutions – these are the signs of interest. Caring is very easy to fake, so this is just one factor of many.

I really think that common values and shared interests make people more trustworthy. If we are trustworthy and someone shares our values and interests, he is likely to be trustworthy.

Again, each quality can be easily faked, leaving everyone with a choice or an educated guess. Usually, trusting pays off.

One last thing: before one can  trust others it is important to learn how to trust yourself.

trust yourself

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