A Philosopher's Blog

Ramblings on Trust

Posted in Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on November 19, 2008

I have been thinking about trust lately, and thought I’d ramble a bit in this post about the subject.

When it comes to trust, people tend to speak in absolute terms: you either trust someone or you do not. While this is true, there are also degrees of trust. On the low end, I trust the person behind me in traffic will not start shooting at me for no apparent reason. On the high end, I have a great deal of trust in my family and close friends.

Trust can also be rather specific in nature. For example, a person might be trusted in certain areas and not so much in others. For example, a bank employee might be trusted with her till, but not trusted enough to have access to the vault. As another example, you might trust a person with your money but not with a chocolate cake (they might be unable to resist that temptation).

One of the things I find most interesting about trust is how it is earned. The term “trustworthy” seems to clearly indicate a belief that people can be worthy of trust. This presumably means that they have the qualities that justify placing faith in them.

Being trustworthy seems to be quite distinct from being trustable (able to be trusted). After all, people often trust others who end up not being trustworthy. Scammers and con artists, if they are successful, are obviously trustable. They are, however, obviously not trustworthy.Trustworthy people are sometimes not trusted; often because people can be poor judges of who to trust. Sorting out who is trustworthy from those who are merely trustable can be quite challenging-especially since some untrustworthy people work very hard at being trustable.

Not surprisingly, it is very important to sort out the trustworthy from the merely trustable. The trustable are often out to take things from other people via deception. Obvious examples include con artists, internet scammers and other such deceivers. Sorting these types out is also important in relationships. One obvious example is discerning between a person who will be faithful and someone who will be a cheater.

As with most decision making, people tend to base their trust on emotional factors-how they feel about the other person. This helps explain how people can often be easily deceived by the trustable. Having taught critical thinking for years, I can attest to the fact that it is fairly easy to manipulate the emotions of most people-especially for those who lack scruples. One obvious example is tapping into greed. The famous Nigerian scams rest on this: the victim trusts the con artist because of his own greed. Another example is fear. Political leaders often manipulate this emotion to get the people to put their faith in them.

Naturally, most people believe that they can see through attempts to trick them. This fact is, of course, relied on by those who make their way through life by deceit. Most people are rather bad at sorting such things out and it is not uncommon for people to trust those they should not and not trust those they should.

Reason can be a big help here. Objectively and rationally assessing the other person’s qualities, behavior and motivations can go a long way in assessing their trustworthiness.

That said, how we feel about other people is also important-but feeling is generally not an effective guide to determining who is trustworthy and who is not. Feeling just tells us how we feel about the person and does not tell us whether we should feel that we trust her or not.

I plan to write more on this subject and in more detail-including some practical advice for sorting people out.

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7 Responses

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  1. Dave said, on November 19, 2008 at 3:32 pm

    For what it’s worth, it’s been my experience that the people most easily fooled are the ones who believe they can tell when someone’s lying to them. This is overconfidence. As an attorney I have cross-examined hundreds of witnesses under oath, and just when I start to believe I can generally tell when someone is telling the truth, I find people who can tell straight-faced lies without blinking. The best way to tell if someone is lying is to look for independent proof – documents, evidence, etc. to support or dispute what the person is claiming. And never presume you can tell when someone is lying.

  2. SPARTAN-367 said, on November 19, 2008 at 4:03 pm

    Nice post.

  3. Michael LaBossiere said, on November 20, 2008 at 1:58 pm

    Having taught for years, I’ve run into some amazing liars. They can tell me contradicting stories without a change of expression or even the slightest hint that they are lying. Fortunately, their lack of understanding of logic tends to reveal their attempts at deception.

    I long ago learned to not rely on visual clues for deceit-rather I assess the claims being made.

    I’ve also found that stabbing or shooting people for lying encourages honesty. Is there no problem that cannot be solved by sharpened steel or cast lead? :)

  4. kernunos said, on November 20, 2008 at 10:55 pm

    I agree. When asking a question from someone and hoping for an honest answer. Show the peice you are carrying after your question and before their answer. This of course gives motivation for their honesty. Dave should also know that knowing all of the persons motivations for deception or honesty helps to sort things out a bit also. Or you could just give them Sodium Pentathol before you ask any questions. Trust no one……are those black helicopters I hear?

  5. [...] little while ago I wrote a blog rambling about trust and promised to write in more detail about trust later on. I had hoped to be able to write [...]

  6. magus71 said, on November 25, 2008 at 11:56 am

    I have to say that many of the people I dealt with in my previous job did exibit physical symptoms of lying. Of course, perhaps the ones that didn’t, got away with their wrongs. It actually took me several years to see these symptoms for what they were, and sometimes it was difficult for me to articulate what made me believe someone was lying–but I did learn to listen to my instict.

    I think most people can see symptoms that they know belong to liars, but people don’t want to think that they are being lied to. As a police officer, I found that I was deceived more often by women than men. Not really because they lied more–but maybe. There was something about dealing with the “weaker” sex that made me want to be chivalric instead of objective. One woman actually dug claw marks on her own neck and arms to convince me her boyfriend assaulted her. I arrested him for domestic assault, after chasing him around his own kitchen. While I don’t think this was my fault, and given the atmosphere of today’s domestic violence cases, I know I probably had no choice, but after, I was much more observant and suspicious of lying females who claimed victimhood.

    Spouses and significant others make us particularly vulnerable to lies. They are the last people on earth we want to think will lie to us, and yet if we consider, they may have the most to gain (or at least not lose) by lying to us. If we are able to control our emotions and biases, we could see their lies by the teller’s physical being and the lack of substantiating facts. We can’t usually do this though, until we’re terribly injured. It’s too late then, and we may never see the world the same…

  7. kernunos said, on November 25, 2008 at 12:22 pm

    Yes Magus and I have been in a relationship where I was accused so much of lying that I would exhibit these lying symptoms when around this person while I was not untruthful. I think she was trained by Putin personally.


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