Trust (in) me


The lone driver on long stretches of increasingly snow-and-ice-covered road, I encounter the salt truck. We two alone in the dark; my exhaustion pushing me onward, just minutes from home, his important middle-of-night work the only thing that makes these drives feasible.

I consider, while coasting up the snowy dirt driveway, that this provision of service (salted roads) is an act of (civic) trust. We assume the roads will be cleared and salted in the event of snowfall. And it happens. Earlier in the day, I had been transfixed by an article by technologist/scientist/researcher/writer Mark Burgess. While not explicitly about trust, and all it entails, the article’s philosophical underpinnings focus on cooperation and its role in facilitating work and the system(s) in which we humans operate (and place trust). Clearly it’s a good deal more complex and interesting than I am making it sound. (Read it. I mean it.)

Trust comes into it because, as framed, it is clear that trust is a kind of exchange on which we go on to build relationships and dependencies. We know this.

“There must be something valuable about relationships, after all the brain consumes about 20% of our energy at rest, which is a huge penalty for the meager capability of better living together. The reason nature endures this extraordinary cost is surely the unexpected survival benefits of managing these long-term relationships. Relationships are not just social, they are cognitive. As we interact over time, in many different contexts, we aggregate rich information and build up a complete picture of something, by integrating the multiple experiences into a single model that could not be discovered by single ‘transactional’ encounters. In short, we learn to know someone or something as what we call a friend. Long term cognition, with integration of contextual characteristics, is the very complement of cooperation, allowing us to know and recognize individuality. This is why brains are the key to cooperation.” (Italics mine.)

See what I mean? Fascinating.

In recent weeks I’ve thought deeply on the subject of trust and what engenders trust, how it is born, fostered, squandered, ruined, reclaimed, and how much is programmed by the ‘rich information’ as described in the article (and cumulative memory, i.e. “I did not trust Bob from the beginning, and I was right not to” or “I trusted her and she betrayed me; therefore, I will never trust you or any other person who comes along after her”). While this is tangential to the Burgess article, it still struck many nerves and sparked a lot of internal discussion for me, despite my inner dialogue having little to nothing to do with socioeconomics, work or civil society. (The article is well worth the reading for what it relays on all those topics.) In fact, the article read to me, despite its semi-technical sheen, as deeply human.

“The capacity to form a relationship is the capacity to remember past behaviour, recognize it in another, to assess it, and to cache it as a trust score to guide future expectation.”

Once trust is born and deepens, what shows or proves the viability of its connective tissue? Here, Burgess writes about “Asking for help: exceeding our limits by borrowing”. Yes, in a work-related and societal sense, we must ask for help (implicitly, such as with the understanding that the salt truck is going to come and leave behind a clear road). But also, do we feel we are reaching a deeper level of trust with an individual when we cross that barrier, feeling comfortable enough to ask another for help?

“Much as we value the predictability of total information that comes with our autonomous self-sufficiency, we cannot always manage everything alone.”

In society as in individual life, it can be challenging to accept that one is not the self-sufficient island s/he imagined. I can only speak for myself, but that level of interconnectedness and comfort – and trust (implicit or otherwise) – that would empower me to ask for help has often felt very remote. And, despite advising others to maximize their potential and abilities and resources, etc. by asking for help, I have rarely taken my own advice.

We can see, though, that sometimes it is only through the combined effort or resources of more than the individual that we exceed our limits – in positive ways. We cannot always see all the possibilities – or cannot reach them – on our own. How is jumping over that barrier made palatable though? Is a deeper trust enough?

Yes – but also no. Burgess – and experience – tell us this.

“Paradoxically, there is dark side of cooperation, which is that dependency invalidates promises: because dependency delocalizes agency and information.”

In individual/human life, it strikes me we could interpret this as the old frustrating refrain of two people co-existing in an unbalanced relationship, where the burden to do/plan/handle/organize everything falls to one partner. It may well be that the other, non-responsible partner has no clue that this is a burden and appreciates that the responsible partner has been handling everything: this is his/her trusting the other in ever-deeper ways. But it has not only made the relationship lopsided and created resentment in the responsible partner, it has also created this dependency in the non-responsible partner that, as Burgess describes, removes agency and information.

No, this is not a thorough or even particularly thoughtful examination or analysis of Burgess’s work – certainly not through the lens of scientific thought (I didn’t delve much into the “de-personalizing trust” part of the article, as I was fixated on the personal level of trust). It’s just that the article excited the brain and made these odd connections. I’ve been riding this wave of emotion and human interaction in recent weeks, and that influences how I read and hear everything – seeing applicability where perhaps there isn’t any.

*All quotes from Mark Burgess’s “Banks, Brains, and Factories: How rich information alters the economics of cooperation and work”, available in full on his website.

Photo (c) – Paul Costanich.


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