The trust paradox

Although we think that “being open” will increase trust and transparency, the reverse is more likely.

I came to this paradoxical conclusion after reading an interesting piece on perverse economics [link; but summarised here to save you jumping around]: why the decreasing cost of something over time doesn’t mean that overall expenditure on it is reduced; instead usage goes up by a relatively larger rate—therefore so does overall expenditure.

It was first formally proposed by William Stanley Jevons in relation to coal production in the c19th and has been applied to lots of other resources including, in that linked piece, the cost of computers. Now I’m thinking about it in relation to the issues of trust in our public services and government.

We express a wish for our politicians to be more open—to share more about the detail of their lives, and not just at the lobbyist-lunching, shady-room-negotiating level. About them as people. We have social media and other channels now that make it faster and easier to do so. The boundary between their (and our) public and private lives gets fuzzy. We love this, when we see it serving our interests.

We have more direct access to our representatives. We can exchange a few words with a government minister via Facebook updates, or hear an opinion from the front bench even before the House does. We love that we can do this with our celebrities too, and we perhaps blur the categories at times. It’s all “public interest”, and the more open the better, hey?

And then things go wrong. With wholly predictable regularity. A public figure says something they shouldn’t. Perhaps something careless, a bit dumb, or misinformed, or—indeed—showing up actual malpractice in either a professional or personal capacity. The resources of a 100-hour working week, 200-mile commuting MP with a family and private life to manage are suddenly matched against sharp-eyed and keen-witted bloggers sitting at home with hours to spend forensically dissecting every statement, every inconsistency. And with no incentive to preserve any of those category boundaries, especially between professional and personal capacity. MPs are there to be kicked, particularly if they’re not of your favourite political colour.

You probably know the sort of thing I mean. The MP may not be whiter than white. But this was always our delusion that they would ever be. They are human. And they’ll get filleted in what amounts to asymmetric warfare. Openness goes up. Honesty and dishonesty are revealed. We amplify the dishonesty and ignore the rest. And trust goes down.

There are similar arguments at play with openness in relation to published data. Throwing everything over the wall creates the appearance of transparency. Surely it must increase our trust? But like a good astrologer we’ll expertly search for the material that confirms our thesis, and glide swiftly past the rest. And I’m not necessarily talking here about material that is genuinely in the public interest: the big fraud, the unambiguous cover-up—I’m talking about the trivial, the amusing, the petty contradictions that arise when serving many complex interests at the same time. The sieve that’s required to separate the two is a rare thing indeed.

Openness goes up. Trust goes down.

There are two ways this effect could be countered: by withdrawing openness (either outright or by stealth) or by drawing on the trusty old “sunlight=disinfectant” argument—that nobody will do anything stupid or wrong any more as they know they’ll be spotted. Good luck if you think the latter is more likely.

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5 Responses

  1. Tim Davies says:

    Some key reflections.

    On one level the conflict between transparency and trust is there in their respective definitions. Trust involves accepting that another person / agent will carry out some actions based upon intentions they have revealed either explicitly in promises, or implied by past actions. Transparency is a mechanism of checking up on the agent – verifying their actions – rather than trusting their revealed intentions.

    Transparency helps find those who ‘cheat’ on trust games – and may be able to increase citizen belief in their collective ability to enforce outcomes they want (though this can also be questioned) – but doesn’t support trust in people.

    E.g. ‘With all this transparency I trust we can get the outcome we were promised, but no thanks to that untrustworthy politician over there! If we could trust them we wouldn’t need all this data!’

  2. Anonymous says:

    Perhaps it is being overly optimistic, but my view is that hopefully after a bit of short term pain around openness, we might all just grow up a bit, accept the odd mistake, not expect (and pretend) that public figures are whiter than white, and just get on with life.

  3. Paul Clarke says:

    Let’s hope so, hey? Have you seen the mainstream press recently? ;)

  4. Anonymous says:

    OK, so medium term pain…

  5. Good old fashioned trust may well be replaced as heartily by what the computer and its data says as our sense of personal well being will be sidelined by a reliance on Fitbit readouts i.e. quite a lot.

    There’s not much trust in the game right now. Will we ever get to the point when we decide it’s necessary for a minimum viable product type of civilisation? Who knows…

    …But I wouldn’t want to be someone trying to game the big/linked data business right now. Good luck with that.

    Maybe the paradox is in learning to trust a different type of trust.

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