trust by the numbers

I am an optimist, and tend to think the best of people, but there’s a reason I live alone and apart from others. I always give people the benefit of the doubt until they prove that I should think otherwise. Yet I have no illusions about human nature. When it comes to trusting people I am not naïve.

Today there was a very interesting program on the radio in which experts were being interviewed about an epidemic of cheating which seems to be sweeping our schools, colleges, and the culture as a whole. More and more students are cheating because everyone else is doing it.

And it’s not just the students. Four former principals with the El Paso Independent School District recently said they were intimidated and retaliated against for refusing to participate in a broad cheating scheme cooked up by top administrators. Former superintendent Lorenzo Garcia has pleaded guilty to charges related to a scheme designed to make it appear the district was meeting federal requirements by forcing some students to drop out, preventing some from enrolling, stripping foreign students of credits, and sending false data to state and federal agencies.

In our lemming society, dishonesty is becoming the norm. We want what we want. The ends justify the means.

I have a rule of thumb about trust: 85% of the people in the world you categorically want nothing to do with under any circumstances whatsoever because they do not, and cannot, think for themselves. They lack a moral compass and go with the wind.

And the remaining 15%? It’s contextual.

If you are concerned about trusting people in that remaining 15% not to steal, 5% will never steal, 5% will always steal, and 5% will steal from you if they think they can get away with it. If you’re concerned about trusting people not to violate sexual boundaries, 5% will never do so, 5% will always do so, and 5% will cop a feel if they can get away with it. And so on. Name your context. Someone who would never steal might cop a feel. Someone who would never cop a feel might cut you a dirty deal. As I say, it’s always contextual.

And this is what makes trusting other people such a complicated proposition.

Trust involves a willingness to become vulnerable to another person—if you have confidence in your expectations about their future conduct. Trust reduces uncertainty about future outcomes, simplifies decision processes, and provides us with peace of mind. Trust evokes a feeling of hope and a willingness to take a chance on others.

Distrust, on the other hand, evokes fear and encourages defensive moves to buffer ourselves from others’ harmful conduct.

Because trust and distrust exist in separate contextual dimensions, relationships are multifaceted and complex. In other words, we may trust another in some contexts, but not in others. Similarly, we may distrust others in some contexts and not others. Thus, within the same relationship elements of trust and distrust may peacefully coexist because they are related to different experiences with the other, or knowledge of the other in different contexts.

If you accept the premise of my rule-of-thumb—that only 15% of all people are trustworthy in some (but not all) circumstances–you might say that because the numbers are so overwhelmingly against trust, that just maybe you should trust no one. But that’s a losing proposition because it would doom you to a lonely life in which the only things you will ever accomplish are those things you can do by yourself—a starkly narrow range of possibilities.

Paleoanthropologists tell us cooperation and sharing have been foundational traits of being human for about two million years and differentiate us from the apes. Trust is often said to be the “glue” that holds relationships together and enables people to interact together efficiently. Without trust, human progress would be impossible.

Contrary to traditional, normative views that trust is good and distrust is bad, a broader perspective recognizes that trust is valuable insofar as it is appropriate to the context, and that a healthy amount of distrust can be good, too, because it can protect you against certain risks. Accordingly, conflicts can be more effectively managed or avoided when attention is given to managing the initiation and development of trust, as well as to tempering distrust.

This perspective has allowed me, unlike members of Congress and other polarized politicians, to work effectively with people with whose views and methods I adamantly disagree. For example, last year I needed to confirm whether a rumor we’d heard about someone in connection with one of our kids’ cases was true or not. We had been told the person in question was a Klansman. So I reached out to a prominent white supremacist and made friends with him. He did some checking around for me and learned that no one in the Klan had ever heard of the individual. I believed his answer because we had developed a sufficient level of mutual respect and trust. My core values—honesty, purity, unselfishness, love, and loyalty—provided a common ground sufficient to bridge our differences.

(Even though typically-PC folks may be scandalized that I would reach out to such a person and treat him with respect rather than disapprobation, I like to think this proves I am a true multiculturalist.)

The bottom line is that we run background checks before we put volunteers into contact with kids as mentors. If some adults reach out to our kids on their own and appear to be displaying odd behavior, we check them out. We have a high toleration and respect for the unique differences of individuals, yet we feel a responsibility to keep checking and verifying that their behavior is contextually appropriate wherever the welfare of kids is concerned.

We know that the odds are always great that wolves will present themselves in sheep’s clothing.

Доверяй, но проверяй

(Doveryai, no proveryai – “Trust but Verify”)



Groove of the Day 

Listen to The Josh Abbott Band performing “I’ll Trust You”


7 Responses to “trust by the numbers”

  1. 1 Andy Rich
    July 31, 2012 at 12:45 am

    I started reading but my brain started going into a tounge twisted mind ward trying to put things in an understanding simple way, nothing like a morning confusion! I’ll try it again when ive had a few hours kip!

    Hold me horses, im gunna give it another go!

  2. 5 Frank Manning
    July 31, 2012 at 2:41 am

    I like that you quoted one of my favorite Russian proverbs. When the Washington state police did their backgroud check on me prior to my approval as a reform school volunteer, they must have gone back to my wild college and punk rock days from the late 60s through the late 70s. Telling me that she had seen the background check and was approving my application she said something to the effect of “I see you were quite the social activist. The boys are gonna love you.” With the kids I work with, getting the trust of the adults is the easy part. Those broken young souls are the real challenge. You have to work hard to gain their trust!

    No problem with reaching out to an authority on a particular subject, no matter who he his. Nobody said you won’t get your hands dirty digging for the truth and justice.

  3. 6 Gloria
    July 31, 2012 at 3:51 am

    love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.

    William Shakespeare

    please sign and share.

    James Prindle: Help set aside the verdict pending an investigation


  4. 7 matt
    July 31, 2012 at 6:32 am

    For some of these kids, the bond between parent and child was broken almost at birth, when they cried and no one came . . . and the child learned.

    Others who cried were shaken and screamed at . . . and the child learned.

    And for some, it took longer and came in different forms of abuse and neglect . . . and the child learned.

    Betrayal, an ugly scar on the mind that impacts the rest of their lives.

    Trust and bonding, it is the nature of the human child, but sometimes things aren’t that way. Is it any wonder . . .

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