In Whom Do We Trust?
As I write this, Halloween is just a few days away. It was one of my favorite holidays as a child. Not only did it mean I got to dress up as “Rainbow Bright” or “Minnie Mouse,” but it was the one time I got to wander my neighborhood with my brother, past dark, visiting strangers’ houses to ask for candy that was all mine to eat (save for the one or two pieces that inevitably disappeared into my dad’s mouth).
Other than the typical commonsense rule to “look both ways before you cross the street,” Halloween was a time when we had free rein to do what we wanted — that is, if you agreed to one stipulation: No eating treats before an adult could inspect each and every single piece of candy for tampering.
After all, strangers had been known to lace Pixy Stix with poison, embed razor blades into caramels or coat the paper of candy buttons with LSD.
While this parental requirement may not have been unreasonable, the belief that incidents of Halloween candy being contaminated were unfounded. The only proven case of a child dying from poisoned Halloween candy occurred in 1974, when an 8-year-old was poisoned by a Pixy Stix laced with cyanide.
But the candy didn’t come from a neighbor or even a stranger – it came from the boy’s father. It had nothing whatsoever to do with trick-or-treating. Yet, the fear of a stranger hurting us was ever present.
Fast forward 30 years, and we’ve done a profound 180.
For decades, trust has been touted as the essential lubricant that keeps our economy moving. However, trust in businesses, government and the media has hit rock bottom. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, a survey aimed at measuring trust levels around the world, trust in all major institutions has declined. At the same time, trust in “a person like yourself” is now on par with trust in a technical expert or academic.
The evolution of who and what we trust has not been an overnight transformation. Instead, as technology increasingly connects individuals with one another, person-to-person transactions and reliance on peer opinions have enjoyed a rebirth.
You may not realize it, but until the 19th and 20th centuries, the trend of trusting large corporations wasn’t the norm. Before the first industrial revolution, most people lived in small communities, had real-life relationships with one another, and did business almost exclusively with those they knew. Such an economic system provided a natural incentive to treat others well as a negative business experience would quickly result in a bad reputation.
But then urbanization increased, and interpersonal relationships with those with whom you did business weren’t typical or practical. The average person had to increasingly put his or her faith in unfamiliar corporations, which in turn brought about other formal institutions to regulate and help safeguard us against abuses by these corporations.
While the public’s trust in big business has gradually declined over the past several decades, it’s the relatively new access to information and communication technologies by the masses that led us to the state of trust today.
The emergence of the internet, and subsequently social media, created an opportunity for large numbers of consumers to not only provide their opinions of products, services and customer experience that were available to the public, but also eventually served as a platform to conduct business directly with one another.
However, it is the ability to capture quantifiable data through digital technologies that provides the basis for this trust between strangers. From Airbnb to Uber to TaskRabbit, peer-reviewed ratings give a sense of safety and security in using such services.
Trusting is hard. Knowing whom to trust, even harder. — Maria Snyder
The first time I met my oldest sister’s husband, my brother and I had just watched the iconic safety video for kids of the ’80s, “Stranger Danger.” We were sitting in the car in, of all places a parking lot, when my sister and a tall athletic man came walking toward us. Recognizing that this man was unfamiliar to us and remembering the lesson of the day, my brother and I frantically rolled up our windows (and I mean literally rolled – manual windows back then) as we screamed at the top of our lungs, “stranger danger, stranger danger.”
We’ve gone from fearing that our neighbors would poison our kids’ candy and encouraging hypervigilance to the danger that strangers pose to feeling comfortable summoning a ride from someone you’ve never met before and staying at a random person’s house.
During Season 3 of the sci-fi anthology series “Black Mirror,” the show explores a future where every aspect of a person’s life is decided by a score based on real-time rankings given by those with whom you interact. Think of your Uber rating following you around everywhere you go.
While we haven’t descended to this dystopian level quite yet, the way we do business closely resembles it. Your reputation is everything these days. It’s very easy for your customers to communicate to a wide audience their experience doing business with you, giving you a reputation, good or bad.
We have come full circle in regards to whom and on what we rely.
While the idea of trusting someone you haven’t met or barely know may make you think we’ve all gone and lost our minds, it’s really just bringing us back to the way we used to do business, only now it’s facilitated through technology.
Whether you want to catch a ride or research a product, enough data are available (reviews or ratings, for example) to feel confident in transacting with or relying on the opinions of other individuals.
What was natural to people for most of human civilization – trusting one another because there was an incentive to be trustworthy – has merely reemerged.