Trust and The Kindness of Strangers

trustOn this famous day, September 11th, it is worth reminding ourselves how much we all depend on the kindness of strangers. This has certainly never been more clear… we live in a world in which there is an increasing interdependence.

Of course, being able to rely on the kindness of strangers has always been important. One of the hallmarks of a successful civilization is its ability to foster an environment in which we can count on each other.

There is a game that is a standard in the field of social psychology and economics. It’s called a “Prisoner’s Dilemma.” In the game you only win if the other person wins.

The mindset of the two players has a huge effect on how this particular game turns out. In essence, you win big if you are able to encourage a sense of trust and reliability in your partner. If you and your partner remain stuck in mistrust, then the best you can hope for is to not lose too much…

This is a pretty good model for how modern civilization works. Those who are inclined to foster mistrust as their primary way of interacting with strangers, end up at best “cutting their losses”, but it is the ability to create trust that is the key to success.

On the other hand, some amount of energy needs to go into a “defense policy.” There are always going to be people who are not trustworthy (see our previous post on “evil”). But when our primary mode of interacting with others is defensive, then we are not able to generate wealth and abundance in the way that we have historically done.

A lot of attention has been focused on the American individualism as the reason for our success, however, I think an equally valid story focuses on how we have been much more effective than other countries in creating a system in which laws do have meaning, and you can count on certain things.

The “wild west” was the source of so much creativity not just because it was wild, but also because the stage coach usually arrived, and eventually there were trains and laws and courts.

In other words, “American Independence” is only part of the story of our success.

Being an entrepreneur really only works in an environment in which there are rules. If America was really a “every man for himself” country, we would never have succeeded as we have.

Similarly, one of the reasons that the internet has been so successful is that it has incorporated tools that measure how reliable someone is a service provider, or vendor, and this has enshrined the notion of excellent customer service, and so people are quite willing to go online and send money to complete strangers who seem to have the exactly perfect product for their needs.