Monday, November 15, 2010


Someone gives you money for an investment project. He says that it would be nice to give it back in case you make good gains but you do not need to do so. Your investment is successful and the amount doubles. What will you do? Experiments show that you’ll give it back. Suppose now that your financier says that you have to pay back at least a part, say 20%. It is your choice to pay back more. Again you succeed to double the amount received. What will you do? Experiments show now that the chance that you’ll pay back the whole amount diminishes. Fewer people are prepared to pack back the whole amount now than in the first case.
This is only one instance of what we call trust. Trust is a kind of promise. It says that you will not let your interests prevail at the cost of the interests of the person who trusts you. Trust can be expressed in words, for example by saying “You can trust me” or by behaviour that shows that you can be trusted. Although past behaviour is not a guarantee for what you will do in future, behaviour in the past that undermined that you were trustworthy tends to undermine that you can be trusted in the future.
As these and other experiments show, trust can also be undermined otherwise. Being a kind of promise, trust involves a moral obligation and it relies on an intrinsic motivation. Everything that undermines this intrinsic motivation undermines also trust. People tend to become calculating and to give preference to their own interests at the cost of interests of other people, when rules and regulations prescribe what they have to do and when, and what is allowed and what is not. When money stimulates or sanctions their behaviour trust is undermined, too. However, rules and regulations and monetary relations can never completely replace trust. Not everything can be prescribed and ways to avoid rules remain. Not all interpersonal relations can be steered by prescriptions and money. And then trust plays its part. Or rather we must say that trust comes first and that, when need arises, it is replaced by prescriptive relations (rules and regulations) and money. But this replacement is a double-edged sword. While it helps society function better where trust fails, it undermines trust as well so that the chance that trust will fail grows. Therefore, one must be very careful not to make more rules and regulations than necessary. The same effect can be seen when society becomes too money-based. Then personal relations, relations based on trust, tend to become relations guided by the question: what can I gain from it, what will it bring to me? One of the most extreme forms of this is corruption, and corruption has a disruptive effect on societies. Whichever way you look at it, trust is the foundation of society. Or alternatively: Trust is a lubricant for society and the better quality the lubricant is, the smoother society runs.

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