The Dangers of Distrust
Society creates systems of incentives for us to trust one another. But the internet has shifted those incentives — distrust is on the rise.
There’s a brilliant little web-tool called The Evolution of Trust that demonstrates how networks of trust emerge and breakdown within a society. It takes about 15–30 minutes to go through it, but it’s definitely worth it if you have the time. The rest of this article will assume you’ve gone through the tool.
The TL;DR of the tool above is this: In most social circumstances, we all default to a “tit-for-tat” strategy of trust — that is, we trust people until they give us a reason to distrust them, and then we distrust them until they give us a reason to trust them again. The tit-for-tat strategy produces the best results for the most people under normal conditions and ultimately ends up generating societies full of trust.
But the tool also lets you experiment with some variables in the system. For example, what if lying or cheating gives you a disproportionately large reward compared to cooperating with others? What then?
Well, the result is predictable: increased incentives result in more cheaters and more cheaters result in greater distrust, and greater distrust results in even more cheating, and so on.
Conversely, if you arrange it so that cooperation gives a disproportionately large reward compared to cheating, people have more incentive to cooperate, which generates trust, which then generates more cooperative behavior, and so on.
In this way, trust within a society organizes into an upward or downward spiral. The more people trust each other, the more trustworthy people tend to cooperate, thus generating more trust, and so on. The more people who distrust each other, the more people behave in untrustworthy ways.
Anyone who has lived in some of the poorer and more corrupt parts of the world has certainly seen this play out. I remember while living in South America, the corruption was so rampant that you felt obliged to behave in untrustworthy ways, otherwise you would just get screwed over constantly. It sucked.