How to trust intelligently

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“The aim [in society] is to have more trust. Well frankly, I think that’s a stupid aim,” says Baroness Onora O’Neill in today’s talk, What we don’t understand about trust. She argues that the aim to build more trust is a cliché, and instead what we need is more trustworthiness. Below O’Neill gives a more nuanced picture of how to trust more intelligently, based on her criteria for trustworthiness.

By Onora O’Neill

Onora O'Neill: What we don't understand about trust Onora O'Neill: What we don't understand about trust Nobody sensible simply wants more trust. Sensible people want to place their trust where it is deserved. They also want to place their mistrust where it is deserved. They want well-directed trust and mistrust.

Trust is well placed if it’s directed to matters in which the other party is reliable, competent and honest — so, trustworthy. Can you trust the corner shop to sell fresh bread? Can you trust your postman to deliver letters? Can you trust your colleagues not to gossip about confidential matters? Can you trust the tax man to calculate what you owe accurately? Trust is badly placed if it’s directed to matters in which others are dishonest or incompetent or unreliable.

So the key to placing trust well is to distinguish cases. It’s a matter of trusting some people for some tasks, and of mistrusting others for those same tasks; of trusting some companies, office holders or professionals for some activities, but not for other activities. That is why looking at opinion polls, which for the most part ask only about generic attitudes to types of professional or institution, so don’t distinguish cases, are a pointless (if depressingly popular) way of approaching questions of trust.

If we want others to trust us, the first step is to be trustworthy: it remains true that you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. The second step is to show that we are trustworthy: we have to provide enough intelligible evidence of competence, honesty and reliability in the relevant matters for others to reach an intelligent judgement. This is not best done by showing that we have ticked all the prescribed boxes, kept perfect records or excelled in some league table. Complex forms of accountability may be useful for third parties, but what matters for most people in judging where to place their trust is generally simpler. Most of us look for evidence of trustworthiness — of competence, honesty and reliability — in the relevant matters.

We trust doctors who take the trouble to ask and answer questions with care, and show that they understand what the problem is and that they can explain the limits of available treatments. We trust journalists who take trouble to provide evidence and sources for their claims, and who publish prompt corrections if they get things wrong. We trust businesses that make accurate claims about their products, and offer usable complaints procedures when something goes wrong. We trust retailers that take unwanted purchases back, no questions asked. We trust teachers who explain what they are doing, listen to comments from parents and pupils, and provide intelligible feedback to them. We trust politicians who speak straightforwardly, don’t promise what they can’t deliver, explain their policies and their difficulties with reasonable caution, and visibly try to deliver what they promise. We trust retail banks that reliably look after our savings, and don’t short-change customers by rewarding loyalty with unattractive interest rates.

Trusting intelligently gets harder when tasks are more complex. Most of us cannot judge the products marketed by the financial services industry, or by insurers. Most of us cannot assess scientific claims or new technologies. In these complex cases we can place and refuse trust intelligently only by finding proxy evidence of trustworthiness, since the complete evidence is too complicated for the less expert. We can all think of examples of useful proxy evidence provided by experts. In the best cases, auditors, examiners, regulators, evaluators, peer reviewers and experts of other sorts can judge trustworthiness, and then offer an intelligible summary that serves as proxy evidence for the less expert. Most of us can unfortunately also think of cases in which the proxy evidence provided by experts was too complex, irrelevant or unusable, so could not support the intelligent placing and refusal of trust.

Trust requires an intelligent judgement of trustworthiness. So those who want others’ trust have to do two things. First, they have to be trustworthy, which requires competence, honesty and reliability. Second, they have to provide intelligible evidence that they are trustworthy, enabling others to judge intelligently where they should place or refuse their trust.