Tuesday, July 07, 2009

On Trust

Trust, according to the dictionary, is the belief in the honesty and reliability of others.

A belief, in this context, is an expectation of future behavior from another human being.

Honesty is the absence of deception.

Reliability is a quality, the possessor of which acts as per an implicit or explicit contract, or as per precedent.

Let us consider a few scenarios of trust:
  • A trusts B to repay the loan in one month.
  • A trusts B to keep some private information about A to himself.
  • A trusts B to pick up C from school.
  • A trusts B to not have sex with any another person other than A.
  • A trusts B to take care of a CDROM that A has lent to B.
It is obvious that trust is a form of expectation from another entity. Superficially, trust can be about feelings (in which case the feelings get hurt if the trust is broken), or trust can be about the fulfillment of a material contract (in which case there is material harm if the trust is broken).

Let us consider material contracts first:

In business dealings, trustworthiness is generally not a factor, and after due diligence, formal contracts are signed. In business, one trusts at one's own peril. If the contract is breached, one can appeal to various institutional authorities, and one can get insurance or hedge one's bets, etc.

In personal affairs, however, to have a signed contract for everything is impractical and cumbersome. Moreover, people expect that you will trust them. If someone borrows a CDROM from me, and I ask him to sign a legal IOU, that will seem rather rude to him. If on the other hand, he goes over to a Blockbuster video store, and borrows a DVD, he will have no hesitation in signing a contract or a credit agreement. Why is that so? The dealing with a video store is "impersonal" whereas with a friend it is "personal". To expect consideration in "personal" relationships is very widespread and a breach of this ethic is considered inhuman.

Hence, personal contracts are usually informal and based on reputation and familiarity. If someone breaks the (informal) contract too many times (the threshold of tolerance varies from loser to loser), then it is justified to not enter into further contracts with him. Sometimes, a witness or an intermediary offers his "word" that the contract will not be broken, and that damages will be his responsibility.

Now on to contracts of feelings. Contracts of feelings are biological in their origins. Expectations of fidelity in marriage are feelings which are hard-wired, but they have a sound evolutionary basis as a survival and propagation strategy. Expectations of affection from one's parents or spouse are based on our nurturing instincts, and have material safety as their aim. We are feeling beings at our core, and though those feelings are biological in nature, we justify them with a lot of words.

When a contract is broken, whether it be material or affective, there is a feeling of loss. The feeling of loss is much more if the contract is affective, because in that one feels one's very "being" to be hurt. Moreover, in affective contracts, there is little that one can do to redress a breach. In material contracts, one can approach the law enforcement authorities. But to ask the police to intervene because one's spouse is not affectionate enough is not a very common occurrence. In such cases, the aggrieved can resort to funny tactics, which are probably not that funny to the recipient of those tactics.

In traditional or primitive societies, the community usually intervenes to address breaches of material as well as affective contracts. In modern societies, the community is evaporating and individuals are becoming more important. In a modern society, therefore, whenever there is a breach of affective contract, either individuals work it out between themselves, read self-help books, try to "evolve" themselves, or go to a counselor. If these fail, or are unavailable, there can be a lot of suppressed rage and stress.

It is also noteworthy that traditionally strong affective contracts are themselves becoming obsolete in modern societies. Folks in modern western societies no longer expect their daughters-in-law to tend to them when they are sick, and even in India, live-in relationships are becoming more common, kids are refusing to listen to every dictate of their parents, teachers can no longer command respect just by the virtue of their being in a position of authority, and so on. Traditionalists decry this "moral decay", but it is inevitable.

I measure the growth of an individual or of a society by the frequency of its affective agitations. An affective agitation is sometimes the only means available in a primitive society, or to an individual in such a society, but that then proves the point.


Anonymous said...

re: link on 'resort to funny tactics' .. false claim? http://www.snopes.com/love/revenge/emily.asp

Harmanjit Singh said...

Good catch Srid, the story is a funny urban legend, and is not true.