08 January, 2013

Trust and Trustworthiness - one begats the other and vice versa


A BBC article poses this question: Which comes first - trust or trustworthiness? It's an excellent article which summarises the major points of the discussion and asks, "How can we restore trust?".

The answer:
  1. Be trustworthy.
  2. Provide others with good evidence that you are trustworthy.

As Abraham Lincoln pointed out, "You may fool all of the people some of the time; you can even fool some of the people all of the time; but you can't fool all of the people all of the time."


So how do you build evidence that you are trustworthy?
Things are harder when we have to decide whether to trust experts, or complicated institutional processes. Here we often can't find or judge the evidence by ourselves.
So the argument runs: 
We need more accountability and more transparency. Both can be helpful, but both can also obfuscate rather than make it easier to judge others' likely trustworthiness. 
Systems of accountability won't make trust easier unless people have reason to trust these systems. If they are too complex or designed for other purposes - as they often are - most of us will find it difficult to follow them, and it's hard to know whether they are trustworthy guides. They may damage professional performance - as a midwife commented recently, it takes longer to do the paperwork than to deliver the baby and that's surely the wrong way around.
Transparency is another fashionable remedy, and has become technically easy. It can be achieved merely by pushing information into the public domain. But as lots of people will not find the information, or will find it obscure, or will not be able to work out whether to trust it, transparency is no guarantee that others will be more likely to trust.
Web 2.0 functionality of user ratings (eg ebay ratings) is certainly a great way of demonstrating transparency. These systems work well when trading commodities, when one is assessing the individual trader alone and not the product or service. When the products or services become more complex or more subjective, Web 2.0 opinions can merely muddy the transparency puddle further.

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