Should you trust your neighbor?

You might see trust as a classic prisoners’ dilemma: individually we are better off if we choose not to trust one another, yet as a collective we are doubtless better off trusting.

Let me illustrate this with an example, perhaps close to heart: In school, we have the option of whether or not to share notes. Individually, we’re clearly better off not sharing, since (1) if that person shares and you don’t, you have an advantage over him, and (2) if that person doesn’t share and you don’t either, you are not conceding any advantage at all. If we were to however share notes as a collective, we would most certainly be better off. Of course, you could argue that if we all share, we would be effectively redistributing the knowledge a la communism (in which case nobody is better off than anyone else). You could also argue that since we all become smarter, the bell curve dictates that we would be no better off than if we were to slack as a collective. But let’s not focus on the bell curve and instead the acquisition of knowledge – sharing is clearly better for all of us.

Why then should trust be any different? Shouldn’t we just not trust? That way, we have nothing to lose (nothing to gain either, but at the same time we ensure others have nothing to gain too). But let me suggest a few reasons why sharing of notes is qualitatively different from trust and why we should in fact, trust.

We should first define trust. We could say that the extent to which A trusts B is his willingness to be vulnerable to B. For example, sharing your secrets with someone makes you vulnerable to him. Raghu illustrated this well using Russian Dolls as an analogy. We might say that the more trusting you are, the fewer layers of it you have.

But this leaves out the question as to why we would in the first place be willing to trust – if trusting makes you vulnerable, then not trusting necessarily makes you less vulnerable. So why would we choose to be vulnerable? If we are indeed rational, then there must be some benefit in trusting that outweighs the cost of vulnerability.

Game theory offers an explanation. While sharing notes might be a one-shot game (if we subsequently take different modules), trust is probably better represented as a repeated prisoners’ dilemma (I think it’s safe enough to assume we don’t keep friends for just one semester). In such a case, as long as both parties trust each other, both are better off in the long run (in the form of more intimate relationships, more sharing etc.); if one decides to betray the other’s trust, the other can simply employ a tit-for-tat strategy, i.e. never trust again, in which case both will be worse off indefinitely. This explains why we choose to trust even though it is not in our best interests as a rational being – or does it?

What’s important to note here is that we’re looking at A betraying B’s trust, as opposed to A no longer trusting B. In the former case, it is easy for B to detect and he can respond accordingly. This would certainly apply more to tangible actions such as A spreading rumors about B. But if we’re looking at whether A should trust B, things might not be so black-and-white. We would instead be looking at a more emotional context. In other words, the question would no longer be: Should I trust that he will not betray my feelings? Rather, it would be: Should I expect that he will trust me as well if i entrust him with my feelings?

Then again as we are about to find out, the latter is irrelevant. We need to recognize that trust is not necessarily reciprocal and could very well be a one-way street: I could trust you but you don’t have to trust me. Your not trusting me certainly doesn’t constitute a betrayal of trust, neither does it provide a strong enough reason for me to not trust you. In deciding whether to trust someone, what really matters is whether we think that person deserves our trust, and more importantly (going back to the fundamental meaning of trust), whether this person will betray our trust.

If you are agreeable so far, then we must say game theory provides us a sufficiently good explanation as to why you should indeed, trust your neighbor.

Yours strategically,


-to be continued-


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