The smart move: we learn more by trusting than by not trusting

Nov 14, 2019 by

People who trust more get better at knowing whom to trust, and so reap the benefits of more friends and more knowledge

We all know people who have suffered by trusting too much: scammed customers, jilted lovers, shunned friends. Indeed, most of us have been burned by misplaced trust. These personal and vicarious experiences lead us to believe that people are too trusting, often verging on gullibility.

In fact, we don’t trust enough.

Take data about trust in the United States (the same would be true in most wealthy democratic countries at least). Interpersonal trust, a measure of whether people think others are in general trustworthy, is at its lowest in nearly 50 years. Yet it is unlikely that people are any less trustworthy than before: the massive drop in crime over the past decades suggests the opposite. Trust in the media is also at bottom levels, even though mainstream media outlets have an impressive (if not unblemished) record of accuracy.

Meanwhile, trust in science has held up comparatively well, with most people trusting scientists most of the time; still, in some areas at least, from climate change to vaccination, a share of the population doesn’t trust science enough – with devastating consequences.

Social scientists have a variety of tools to study how trusting, and how trustworthy, people are. The most popular is the trust game, in which two participants play, usually anonymously. The first participant is given a small amount of money, $10 say, and asked to decide how much to transfer to the other participant. The amount transferred is then tripled, and the second participant chooses how much to give back to the first. In Western countries at least, trust is rewarded: the more money the first participant transfers, the more money the second participant sends back, and thus the more money the first participant ends up with. In spite of this, first participants on average transfer only half the money they have received. In some studies, a variant was introduced whereby participants knew each other’s ethnicity. Prejudice led participants to mistrust certain groups – Israeli men of Eastern origin (Asian and African immigrants and their Israeli-born offspring), or black students in South Africa – transferring them less money, even though these groups proved just as trustworthy as more esteemed groups.

Source: The smart move: we learn more by trusting than by not trusting | Aeon Ideas

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