Trust, Confidence and Forgiveness

1. Imprecision

The English language is notoriously imprecise; a strength and a weakness at the same time. There are often multiple words to describe the same general concept, but those words, grown from different seeds, blossom with different meanings. The strength is that English is versatile and resilient, but the weakness is that it’s confusing even to native speakers.

Most of the time this isn’t a problem, because life is confusing and we’re fine with our language reflecting life. At some points, however, this confusion becomes problematic, and in some cases dangerous. We are at one of those points right now, as we cruise through the twenty-first century into a world in which key concepts are being redefined to serve interests that may not be our own.

To be specific: I propose that we need to more clearly separate the concepts of “Trust” and “Confidence”. Dictionary definitions tend to emphasise the personal nature of Trust, while Confidence seems to be more broadly applicable to both people and things; and indeed in everyday use, the two are often used interchangeably. That’s a problem.

2. At Scale

In Ye Goode Olde Dayes, scale was not something that most people had to worry about. Communities were small and coherent, even if you lived in an urban settlement rather than a rural idyll. Your personal interactions from birth to death were almost entirely with the same limited group of people, most of whom lived within walking distance, with occasional interruptions.

We survived because of our communities, and a critical part of community is Trust. We Trusted our neighbours in very specific ways, even if we didn’t particularly like them, because we recognised that the interests of the community were sometimes (if not often) more important to our survival than our personal preferences. When bandits attacked, we didn’t just defend our own dwelling.

The past is another country, and most of us haven’t lived there for a long time. Although we try to recreate those small communities, even within the biggest cities, we have far more likely to have far more interactions with a far wider range of people than at any time in human history. The density of interactions weighs heavily on all of us, and we create institutions to take that weight.

3. Or Confidence?

This is where the confusion comes in. The sort of Trust we have in our family, our neighbours, our community, doesn’t scale well as that community expands in size, becoming more diverse and more fractious. That Trust we previously felt is transferred from individuals to institutions, but institutions are not people, even if they’re made up of people. A tension arises.

At smaller scales this tension is not a problem. It’s something that needs to be managed, of course, but the institutions are small enough and close enough that we usually have personal relationships with at least one person in them. This presents its own problems, since those personal relationships usually imply unequal access to the institution, but again those problems are not critical.

Since institutions are not people, we shouldn’t Trust them; however we should be able to have Confidence in them, which is to say that we should be confident that they will operate as they are supposed to operate. This is the distinction we need to make more clearly, between Trust and Confidence. Trust is personal; Confidence is impersonal.

More critically, confidence is a one way street. In a well-functioning economy you can use cash with confidence, but the central bank doesn’t need to have confidence in you. The central bank doesn’t need to know you exist, let alone to care about you, in order for cash to function. Trust, on the other hand, is reciprocal: if I don’t trust you, you probably can’t trust me.

4. Deliberate confusion

Our confusion between Trust and Confidence is understandable, and excusable. Unfortunately that confusion has been deliberately exacerbated by institutions that have an interest in making you think that you have a personal relationship with them, rather than an institutional relationship. We use the word “Trust” in relation to institutions because we have been trained to think of them as people.

The smaller the company, the more likely you are to have a genuine personal relationship; with the manager of a local bank, the family that run the corner store, the electrician that lives around the corner. As the company expands, such relationships become untenable: staff are interchangeable cogs in a larger machine, and organisational imperatives take over staff preferences.

Institutions are not people. Our relationship with institutions can never contain trust because it is not reciprocal. Institutions are impersonal, and they will never be worthy of our trust because they will never be prepared to put the collective good above their own preferences. They want you to forget this, because they want to inherit the trust that you previously had and now have nowhere to place.

Trust in the modern era is a marketing exercise. It is used to gain your custom by pretending your relationship is more than that of a customer. It is not, just as a loyalty card implies zero loyalty. What should worry us most is that Trust is sometimes used to obscure the fact that we can no longer have confidence in the institution itself. Trust us, they say, even as the house of cards is collapsing.

5. Automatic Trust

Once you’ve distinguished between Trust and Confidence, you start to notice the way in which the word trust gets misused in corporate interests. The word “trust” is used increasingly in relation to digital products and services, and particularly in relation to financial services. This type of “trust” is deemed critical to the future economy – if we don’t trust, we won’t use those services.

If we accept the distinction between Trust and Confidence, it should be clear that WE SHOULD NOT TRUST DIGITAL SYSTEMS. We should have Confidence in them, i.e. we should be able to rely on them to do what they claim to do, but we should not trust them. Trust is personal and reciprocal, while digital systems are by definition impersonal and nonreciprocal. (It turns out there is no good antonym for ‘reciprocal’, because the English language.)

The bottom line is that you cannot automate Trust, and automation is not a substitute for Trust. Automation is not even a substitute for Confidence, unless you can read the code – and even then, that Confidence has a strictly limited circumference, and outside that circle nothing will hold you up. Automation will increasingly be used a substitute for Confidence; but that’s another topic altogether.

6. Human Systems

The most powerful social systems are those that combine Trust and Confidence, and this is where we come to money. Money systems combine Trust – I trust that you are not trying to deliberately cheat me – with Confidence – I have confidence that the institutions we rely on are doing their jobs. This combination is one of the hidden drivers of successful economies.

Living without Trust or Confidence is an impossibility. It is possible to live with Trust but without Confidence – although it would be extremely stressful – and it is possible to live with Confidence but without Trust – although it would be a hollow world. Neither of these states is particularly desirable, however, which is why it’s important to that our societies have the right balance between the two.

If I was feeling mystical, I’d say that Trust is Magic while Confidence is Science; but that will get me in trouble with the rationalists. So: Trust is organic; you grow it. Confidence is constructed; you build it. That distinction is problematic but useful. There are no short cuts to Trust, but it is possible to build Confidence fairly quickly; one reason that it’s tempting to pretend that Confidence is Trust.

7. Is Forgiveness?

At this point you might be wondering why Forgiveness was included in the title. Forgivenss is necessary when Trust has been broken, but Forgiveness is personal but not reciprocal: I can forgive you without any expectation of forgiveness from you, or even any real change in your attitudes or behaviour. We can forgive individuals – but we cannot forgive institutions.

This isn’t a moral judgement – I am not claiming that institutions aren’t deserving of forgiveness, I am proposing that it is a category error even to think that it’s possible to forgive an institution. Forgiving an instiution is meaningless, both in theory and practice; it is a statement that is devoid of meaning, and an act that is devoid of content.

Institutions should strive to build our confidence in them, not seek to build our trust in them. An institution that asks for your trust is trying to pull the wool over your eyes: they don’t trust you, and you can’t trust them. (Again, this is a category error rather than a moral judgement.) In a way it’s not their fault: like a replicant in Blade Runner, corporations really do believe that they’re people.

8. Truth forward

There is nothing wrong with institutions. They are essential to civilisation, and I happen to like civilisation. (Well, on most days.) To create a healthier society, however, institutions need to stop lying to us, and lying to themselves, about their nature. We need to stop lying to ourselves about their nature, because a relationship based on a lie can never be a healthy relationship.