What Improving Trust Requires of Us

October 28, 2023

How fostering uncertainty can actually foster trust

By Mark Coatney

There’s a bit early on in Wolf Hall that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently in the context of building and restoring trust. Thomas Cromwell is considering Thomas More (and to be clear here, Hilary Mantel’s fictional More may be nothing like the real More – for the sake of his memory I hope not – but he’s an interesting character when we think about trust) and the different ways the two men view the world:

“He never sees More without wanting to ask him, what’s wrong with you? Or what’s wrong with me? Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm in you what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of the world; and the next world too.”

As the ARTT team has noted in this space before, whether you decide to trust someone is heavily dependent on your "priors" (the unique experiences and assumptions that inform your tendency to trust). We are quick to trust people overall, and to excuse violations of trust if we think they are the result of competence (the person made a mistake) but not if we think it is a violation based on a lack of integrity (the person is evil).

We’ve talked some about how trust violators might deal with this – namely, by trying to reframe an integrity violation as a violation of competence, where a simple apology can help. If that is not possible, someone who has violated trust might next deny that any violation ever happened (because people punish integrity violations much more severely, even if the violator apologizes). But it’s also worth considering how the choices a trust violator might make in viewing their violation affect whether trust is maintained.

For example, in the stories that most people tell themselves about their actions, they are usually the hero. Back in my journalism days, the personal shorthand I used for this concept when I would edit reporters is “the bad guy usually thinks he’s the good guy.” And so it’s worth considering whether that in fact might have some merit.

The difficult part in trust is that some integrity violations really are integrity violations, and you shouldn’t trust that person anymore, while some integrity violations are really simple mistakes. To increase trust, people need to be open to the possibility that, no matter our priors, the trust violator made a simple mistake – to “knock the corners off the certainties of the world.”

Given that our current online spaces seem to be particularly well-designed to erode trust, the question for those of us at the ARTT project is clear: In a world with a never ending stream of information, online filter bubbles and media generated by bad actors that seems increasingly designed to reinforce and confirm everything we already believe we know, how do we help foster the good kind of uncertainty? What are tactics, processes and strategies to increase trust that match the scale of manufactured distrust that are not simply asking for blind faith or surrender?

We believe the ARTT Guide that we’re building can be a good first step, but there’s clearly much more to do.

What are strategies you’ve seen to manage this? Let us know, and we may share them in the newsletter. We’ll see you in your email inbox in a couple weeks.

What We're Reading, Etc.

Centering Community Voices: How Tech Companies Can Better Engage with Civil Society Organizations (Tech Policy Press)

Predictive Policing Software Terrible At Predicting Crimes (The Markup)

Benchmarking Cognitive Biases in Large Language Models as Evaluators (arXiv)

Peer Matching and Digital Health Storytelling Can Promote Health Equity (Medium)

Whatcha Got?

We're building the ARTT Guide in public, which means we need your help. What are some good examples of trust-building that you have come across online? Who does it well, and why? What else should we be thinking about? You can let us know here, or by emailing us at artt@hackshackers.com.