Sine fide, sine amicis


Have you ever wondered whether or not you could trust someone? Or wondered what that would mean for the person you’re thinking about; what it might mean for you; what it could mean for the very idea of trust itself? These are difficult issues -uncertainty itself is difficult. But, the fact there is even a question suggests that there are reasonable doubts about the reliability of other person -because if there were no doubts about them, would you still be wondering if you could trust them?

Trust risks betrayal, but it also builds something; if it turns out to be justified (when it might not have been), something valuable has been gained, even if it is only belief in the other person. Let’s face it, most of what we know about the world is because of the contributions of other people; some things -like, say, the the advice you receive from your doctor, or the knowledge that it is possible to recharge your cell phone- you are unlikely going to be able to work out for yourself from first principles. So, there are some things you are probably better off to take on trust. Some are far less clear cut, however; there are fewer guideposts. Therein lie our doubts.

There is another reason for trusting, however: the informational asymmetry between trusting and not trusting. I happened upon a brief essay by the French evolutionary and cognitive psychologist Hugo Mercier from the CNRS (Institut Jean Nicod) in Paris. I suppose it was the title that initially attracted me: ‘The Smart move: we learn more by trusting than by not trusting’. https://aeon.co/ideas/the-smart-move-we-learn-more-by-trusting-than-by-not-trusting

In a way, that sounds counterintuitive; surely it’s the other way around -the lesson is more strident if our trust is discovered to be unwarranted. It makes one wary of doing it again; it is not easily forgotten. Then again, whatever one learns from trusting -whether good or bad- is important, too. Trusting advice -solicited or not- often tests more than just the individual giving it. As Mercier points out, ‘when we trust, we learn not only about specific individuals, we learn more generally about the type of situations in which we should or shouldn’t trust. We get better at trusting… People who trust the media more are more knowledgeable about politics and the news. The more people trust science, the more scientifically literate they are.’ Uhmm, I didn’t just make that up…

But there is more to it than that. ‘When our trust is disappointed – when we trust someone we shouldn’t have – the costs are salient, and our reaction ranges from annoyance all the way to fury and despair. The benefit – what we’ve learnt from our mistake – is easy to overlook. By contrast, the costs of not trusting someone we could have trusted are, as a rule, all but invisible. We don’t know about the friendship we could have struck… We don’t realise how useful some advice would have been… We don’t trust enough because the costs of mistaken trust are all too obvious, while the (learning) benefits of mistaken trust, as well as the costs of mistaken mistrust, are largely hidden. We should consider these hidden costs and benefits: think of what we learn by trusting, the people whom we can befriend, the knowledge that we can gain.’

I admit that Mercier doesn’t make his case about the informational asymmetry as strongly as I would have liked, but although he hasn’t convinced me, the idea is an interesting one, and something which had not occurred to me before. Still, trusting someone you know is different from trusting a bot that sends you an Email, or a voice that tries to interest you in something on the phone. And nowadays, with the economy still reeling from the pandemic, there seem to be a lot of entreaties on a lot of venues trying to get you to trust what they say -of course, they’re often simply trying to survive…

I do not have a land line phone -I gave that up once I had retired; I rely on my cell phone on which the name of the caller is displayed if they are on my list of contacts, or at least the phone number if they are not. I mention that because I seldom answer the call if I don’t recognize the caller -or at least the number on the screen.

 A few days ago, however, I did answer without full compos mentis -I had been snoozing if you must know, and I am never at my best when I initially awaken; my croaky voice gives me away, I fear. The caller’s initial confusion at its huskiness usually allows me time to collect my wits, so I see it as a plus, really. And anyway, that day I couldn’t understand the message I was being given. The voice spoke with an accent and a rush of syllables that baffled me, although the caller did know my name and used it to suggest there was a reason I should listen to what he had to say. The slowness of my response worked in my favour, however, and it only increased my advantage when I asked the caller -a gentle sounding man, from what I could tell- to repeat the purpose of his call.

He did, of course, but although I still couldn’t make out the name of the company he represented, I could tell my hesitation was having an effect on him. I gathered he was advertising some online teaching course, and that he, in turn, was beginning to hesitate. But there was patience in his voice, and the softness in his words softened mine.

Normally, if I think I am being unfairly solicited, I either end the call, or become quite rude. For some reason, though, his voice was one which, under different circumstances, I would be inclined to trust. I just couldn’t hang up on him -it would have been impolite, I thought.

“No, I’m not interested.” I added after his second repetition, but the yawning silence that ensued made me feel I had disappointed him, or something. I quickly reconsidered my response. “But, while perhaps I should be interested in your product,” I continued, searching for an excuse to end the call politely, “As you can tell by my voice, I am rather old…” It suddenly occurred to me that I was now playing the ‘elder’ card. “I’m not sure my brain still works the way it used to at University,” I chuckled. “I don’t really want to have to confront that though… My kids would have me in the Senior’s Home in no time if they found out.” He laughed at that. My god, I was actually having a conversation with the man -befriending him almost.

The tenor of his voice changed and he apologized for bothering me -I don’t think that has ever happened to me before on one of those crank calls. And then he thanked me for being so polite over the phone. “You’ve been very patient with me sir,” he said, almost as if he was talking to his aged father. “And I’m going to take your phone number off our call list, so we don’t bother you again.”

I was beginning to like the guy, and without even hesitating, said “I really appreciate that, you know. Thank you!”

“You take care, G,” he said, using my first name.

“And you as well,” I added as I ended the call, feeling a little sad that I hadn’t asked for his name.

You know, Mercier may be on to something – there really is something to be gained by trusting…

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