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  • Simon Boardman

Trick or Trust

Updated: Sep 3, 2020

"Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called "The Pledge." The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird, or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course,... it probably isn't. The second act is called "The Turn." The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you're looking for the secret... but you won't find it, because of course you're not really looking. You don't really want to know. You want to be fooled."

This is the opening narration from Michael Cain's character, Cutter, in Chris Nolan's 2006 film "The Prestige." He's explaining the process magicians use to set up and deliver their "magic." The Prestige is a complex and riveting movie about rivalry and obsession. Also, as much about delusion as illusion. Which brings us to trust and the idea that the human desire to enjoy illusion also leads us to the danger of delusion. Mainly our own, which entertains a head-on collision with the notion of trust. This collision might also explain why trust is disappearing fast or even that it was an illusion of our own conjuring in the first place.

Trust is a vast subject. Without some degree of trust literally nothing gets done. There are different varieties of trust. Some trust is more important than others. We're continually trusting and therefore exposing ourselves to trust's sibling; risk. In some cases, being let down merely causes us to shrug our shoulders. In other cases, we're devastated. The blurring of the line between the two is the problem.

This is the first of a series of articles, blogs, and podcasts we're creating about trust. Trust is perpetual and pervasive. It's been betrayed so much that according to the Edelman's Annual Trust Barometer, institutional trust continues an annual decline unsurprisingly reaching an all-time low. Trust is as fundamental in B2B sales and marketing as it is in life. Despite its pivotal role, trust remains overlooked and misunderstood, thereby condemning business leaders and companies to seemingly never solving the same mysteries and leading to inconsistent results.

At the end of the movie The Prestige, Michael Cain's narrator repeats the monologue from the introduction, asking the same question regarding how closely an audience will watch a magician. He makes the point that we don't really watch that closely (in case we see something!), and we refuse to reach the obvious conclusions when we're being clearly tricked. All because we want to be entertained, we want to be surprised and deceived. We want to believe the fiction; we don't want to face the truth. The price we pay for being entertained and so fooled is that disbelief isn't the only thing we have to suspend. We also have to suspend trust. And as we close the first quintile of the 21st Century, we have lived through a period that some argue saw more betrayals of trust than any other time. We wonder whether the simple tricks and fictions designed to entertain us have led us into a desert of trust?

Unintended Consequences – Rogue One

Back to our examples of exaggerations and fictions and maybe even frauds. People have been misled for years. This is hardly anything new. It's the dark side of our bias for "stories." Are we more deceived than we used to be? Is trust harder to find nowadays, or has it always been an endangered species? Here are two good, seemingly innocent examples from the world of entertainment.

Dean Martin was one of Frank Sinatra's famous "Rat Pack." He was an accomplished singer and arranger, a good dancer, and a capable actor as it turned out (you can't beat him in Rio Bravo with John Wayne). Martin was an all-around entertainer of the 1950s. He also (apparently) lived "hard." Burned the candle at both ends, so to speak - Worked hard, played hard. The reputation of drinking all night and "working" all day fit Dean Martin. He is accredited with the famous phrase, "I feel sorry for people who don't drink, 'cos when they wake up in the morning, that's the best they're gonna feel all day." Except, of course, Dean Martin didn't drink. It was all a charade. According to Iain Russell, "Martin's nightclub act was legendary. He was introduced with the words: 'And now, direct from the bar…' Martin bounded onto the stage, cheekily 'stealing' a large Scotch from one of the stage-side tables en route (it had been planted there beforehand). There was often a bar on the stage, and he would top up his glass from time to time from a bottle of J&B Rare prominently displayed there." All was not quite as it seemed, however. Martin's son Ricci recalled: 'While it was true that Dad drank, the "drunky" routines were an act. On stage, and later on the set of his TV show, Dad usually had a J&B Scotch and soda he nursed through the performance. It was almost always a weak Scotch and soda. Other times it was just apple juice." It's common knowledge these days that Dean Martin's act was just that, an act. People of the age that remember him don't hold him in any contempt though, forgiving him for the deceit. He's recognized as a great entertainer, and a character of his time first and foremost. If there was some "cheek" in his "act," we'd forgive him for any well-meaning, harmless misdirection from a lovable rogue.

For all you Brits reading (or listening out there), Dave Allen was a British comedian that followed a similar routine to Dean Martin. "He sat on a high bar stool facing his audience, smoking and occasionally sipping from a glass of what he always allowed people to assume was whiskey but in fact was merely ginger ale with ice."

There's a lure to all this. We want to believe that these people, while being human and prone to a drink or two (which, by the way, makes it OK for the rest of us), are also superhuman. We want to believe in heroes. Heroes give us hope, and, more importantly, they give us an excuse for our own shortcomings. Celebrities like Dean Martin and Dave Allen fit this description. They could get plastered and yet still be great entertainers, finish their sets, and go out and continue partying into the small hours and then get up and write and rehears and be just fantastic. But, of course, that last part is a fiction.

Both Dean Martin and Dave Allen built reputations based on a lie (the same lie). But because they were entertainers (and their jobs were frivolous), we construe the myth as "harmless." It's a victim-less crime. So, is it? Is it a victim-less crime? Well, not really. It's another example of deceit that we tolerated in our desire to be entertained, and excused. We want to believe in heroes, and this type of trickery is accepted as a "harmless" fiction. The problem with this fiction is that it continues to move the threshold of what's "acceptable" dishonesty. Pretty soon, we're expecting treachery and tolerating it in domains where the crimes are anything but victim-less." Still, being as the lines have become blurred, and we have become de-sensitized, we struggle tell the difference.

This is where we exit the first 20 years of the 21st Century. A period, as we have said, replete with deception and betrayals of trust of biblical proportions. Does it start with simple affectations, trivial entertainment, and end with something much worse?

Trust – The State of the Nation

There are so many glaring examples of betrayal of trust just in the last 20 years it would fill this book and many more. If we go back further, it doesn't get any better. The '60s and 70's in America seemed like a period of awakening, in a bad way. Of realization from Vietnam to Kent state to civil rights to Nixon to assassinations, that the American Dream was not what it appeared to be.

These were gut-wrenching, desperate times. People died. And then the governments of the UK and the USA repeated the behavior in Iraq, based on confusing, misleading even outright deceiving justifications. Other betrayals like the cigarette Industry cover-up, the years' long, racially-biased medical research in the South, right up to the current opioid crisis today may also be first among equals. We are surrounded by behavior deemed as chicanery to unethical on the one hand, and downright cheating on the other, the biggest and most crooked being the 2008 Mortgage scandal.

But (deep breath) we have had the British MP's expense scandal, false intel on WMD's, price gouging by big pharma, BP oil spills, FIFA and Olympic Organization bribery, impropriety in the United Nations, VW's "dieselgate," as well as the Clintons. Daily data breaches become commonplace, Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, general corporate and celebrity tax avoidance, the Panama Papers, and the recent college admissions bribery. Bernie Madoff was the latest version of the good old days of Worldcom, Enron and Arthur Anderson, and Boeing's "MadMax" 737 800 rounds out the list so far.

Phhheewww, and frankly, there so many more. My goal is not to re-hash these, but the number and enormity of these examples explain Edleman's crashing Trust Barometer survey results. As I've said before, and to quote a prophetic graffiti artist from my old college town - "it's a mean old scene."

The Tree of Trust

Apparently, trust has more definitions than any other "idea" in social psychology, according to Rachel Botsman, in her book "Who Can You Trust." Botsman claims that there are more research papers on trust than any other subject within the field of social psychology. This explains part of the problem with trust. If you can't easily explain it and agree on what it is, how can you be expected to understand it, build it, earn it, and keep it? Botsman argues that we are moving from Community Trust, through Institutional Trust, into a stage of Distributed Trust enabled by our technological advances (oh no, not those again!!). The world no longer lends itself to community trust, which was better suited to a time when we were physically located more closely. A time when we assembled together, worked together, spent more time together around community institutions, like churches, town halls, and factories. Our lives and endeavors have become less constrained by physical location, proximity, and distance again due to the advances of the industrial revolution. The resulting migration from the country changed the dynamics of our communities. These social dynamics continue to be subject to the transformations wrought by constant technological change. Institutions, including institutionalized ideas like money and credit, evolved. Institutions and institutionalized ideas had to be managed differently, reflecting their physical disbursement, and therefore so did trust.

Hence to the growth in the professional class. We often don't really know these people of this professional class, who have become the intermediaries of trust. We have been forced to rely on their growing professional bodies and organizations. The most straightforward examples are lawyers and accountants. Still, this label covers anyone who acts as an intermediary between you and the ultimate good or service. Financial people (oh dear) and salespeople, fit this description. This is where we have seen the most significant breakdown in trust. As we move on from this model, we move into the area of what Botsman describes as distributed trust. Institutional trust has been breaking down consistently. Probably since it began. There are glaring examples of deliberate deceit. They are the result of our failure to understand one another as well as our ability to tell a story to suit our own interpretations and purposes (showing, delusion and obvious conflicts of interest).

Judging by the continued betrayal in institutional trust, this move to distributed trust might not be a bad thing. We can make a convincing argument that both the communal and institutional trust systems have always been too open to corruption and have been abused accordingly. In other words, trust has been being betrayed as long as those systems have been in place. Frankly, institutional trust may never have been fit for purpose. Humans just aren't honest or trustworthy enough to carry the burden it puts on us, and neither are all the professional class who evolved into these guardians of trust. So now, according to Botsman, we're moving into the era of distributed trust – maybe what can also be described as the technically enabled wisdom of the crowd?

I Second that Emotion

Trust is a multidisciplinary idea. It possesses elements in conflict with one another. Emotion versus Logic or Captain Kirk Vs. Mr. Spock for us Star Trek fans. Emotionally, it is where you expose your vulnerabilities to people, but believing they will not take advantage of this openness. You trust that they will not do you any harm. We feel trust. Emotions associated with trust include companionship, friendship, love, agreement, relaxation, comfort. Can you think of many instances where you trust someone while also disliking them? While we have recognized that maybe establishing trust represents a leap of some form (perhaps faith), is it also a leap of "like"? In other words, do I have to like you before I can trust you, or do I have to trust you before I like you? A trust paradox.

There are some exciting ideas around the neurological conditions, biology, and process of trust (which we explore later), and without getting into the classic Materialism versus Dualism debate, again, we must acknowledge the influence of our emotions in allowing trust. We also must avoid the temptation to only see things as black or white. That dual conditioning of ours that is a constant theme. In this case, I don't have to trust someone entirely or distrust them completely. In other words, I can trust people to a certain degree. I can trust them to do certain things, for example, trusting someone to cut my grass but not extending that trust to the same person to cut my hair.

In some cases, we don't get to choose the person in which to place our trust. We have to trust a profession or organization. If you wake up and a cardiologist is leaning over you about to perform a heart catheterization, you don't get to establish like or trust. Any delay would be fatal. You are forced to trust the profession of cardiologists, maybe the hospital, and ultimately their humanity. The faith that this person will do their best for you, with all their professional capability and without malice aforethought.

The American system is a product of legislated trust, professionals and institutions. A product of enlightened thinking, of consideration and deliberate action. There is therefore an inevitability to the struggle to govern and legislate forces that compete and resist. The kind of irony where the more you try to plan and administer and protect, the more difficult it becomes. Perhaps the demise of institutional distrust is an inevitable outcome before we can move on to a better situation, and is that better situation this idea of distributed trust?

Ricki, Don't Lose That Number

We have and will explore the shifting attitudes toward trust. An example of these changes was when we asked a mixed age group of B2B sales and marketing professionals for some insight on such matters. As an example, we asked a question around companies that use a local phone number for telemarketing you. This technique was based on the idea that people are more likely to answer their phones if they recognize it's a local number. We asked the group whether they felt this was misleading and dishonest? Their conclusion was generally to identify it more as "bending the rules” than being outright unethical. Still, as long as it got the outcome they desired, they saw it as a "no harm" example. This shows the problem is defining trust and thereby defining all the related ideas. My view is that lying to someone (in this case, pretending to be somewhere you are not) is the worst way to try to start a relationship. The group’s tolerance is an example of the "line of acceptance" being re-drawn. Some see this as petty and unimportant, others (including myself) see it as another example of crumbling standards.

Dan Ariely and Eric Barker have likened trust to a commercial and social lubricant. It reduces friction and helps everything run faster smoother and better. It's a shared resource, like the common grazing fields that were public in years gone by. But it's a finite resource also available to be abused, and we are all familiar with the phrase a “tragedy of the commons”. Ariely and Barker’s point is that that misuse of the resource of trust by some, negatively affects us all.

The Truth About Trust

As we mentioned earlier, trust has more definitions than any, or at least many other ideas, so establishing a definition is not as simple as it sounds.

  • Trust can be defined as to have confidence, faith, or hope in someone or something. An example of trust is believing that the sun will rise in the morning. It's to have faith or hope or confidence in an uncertain (or unknown) outcome. (

  • According to organizational scholars, trust is our "willingness to be vulnerable to the actions of others because we believe they have good intentions and will behave well toward us. In other words, we let others have power over us because we think they won't hurt us and will, in fact, help us." - By Sandra J. Sucher & Shalene Gupta from HBR's The Big Idea, July 2019.

  • In Malcolm Gladwell's book "Talking to Strangers" he suggests that we must at least offer some initial, limited trust, otherwise things go nowhere, and nothing gets done. But we do have to restrict this to minimize the other side of trust, that being risk. The risk is that our trust is misplaced, opening us up to the possibility of harm in some way. In an extreme case Eric Barker of "Barking Up the Wrong Tree" fame points us to Moldova, the country where nothing gets done as trust has evaporated. The challenge, therefore, becomes trusting on a limited basis to allow for progress to be made while mitigating the risk of harm.

According to Rachel Botsman (once more from her book "Who Can You Trust?") we should grant trust on a restrictive basis. In other words, not to assign trust in a Carte Blanche fashion, but being more focused. I might build trust with the guys that cut my grass, but I only build trust with them TO cut my grass. I don't trust them to say…cut my hair. This introduces the idea of the components of trust. Mainly that I trust someone to be "capable" of cutting my grass, whether they are also dependable and honest, are related ideas we'll return to.

One of Botsman's other observations (regarding this move to distributed trust) is related here. We don't trust politicians or people who run large enterprises or institutions anymore (maybe we never did). They have either betrayed trust or are collateral damage in the (justifiable) explosion of institutional distrust. We will trust the person we've never seen before to show up in a car we've never seen before to drive us somewhere. All this despite being explicitly told by our parents to NEVER get into a car with strangers. Botsman uses this as an example of our movement toward distributed trust and serves as an example of specified or restricted trust. In other words, I trust you to perform a specific task, in this case, drive me from one place to another, even though we've never met and I'll probably never see you again. Our trust, in this case, is in part with the brand (Uber, or Lyft) , and also with the idea itself (cheap, convenient, emancipated transportation), enabled by technology. The convenience factor can outweigh other considerations like risk and distrust. Finally, there is the technology enabled wisdom of the crowd (if this was a bad business or person, they'd have a low score).

  • As she searched for a satisfying definition, Botsman uses several examples; "trust is like a contract that guarantees an outcome," according to German sociologist Niklas Luhmann, who wrote that "trust is confidence in one's expectations." Trust is "an evaluation of outcomes, of high likely it is that things will go right. In other words, trust is fostered when the likelihood of an undesirable outcome is low."

  • Botsman quite rightly points out that our ability to assess and assign trust is not confined to our heads but is also governed by our hearts. She quotes Morton Deuthsch, who said, "Trust is confidence that one will find what is desired from another rather than what is feared." Botsman observes that; "trust is a mixture of our highest hopes and their deepest worries."

  • She characterizes trust as two extremes; the present, and the future (or the known and the unknown), with a gap between the two. The gap is the risk of uncertainty, and trust is the bridge that can carry us over that gap. Botsman's final definition of trust is a powerful statement. She defines trust in the end as a "confident relationship with the unknown."

The Verdict

There is no final conclusion here. As this is the first of a series of articles on trust, the jury is still out! This is an introduction to a conversation around the idea of trust. An idea which is overlooked or misunderstood leading to unexpected consequences. Our intent is to encourage people to start to think about the idea of trust more seriously, to better understand its profound importance. But there are some closing thoughts from this opening article:

  • Trust is a broad subject, perhaps the most comprehensive in social psychology. Nothing much happens in our world without someone trusting someone else. Hence the dangers of betraying trust and becoming Moldova. When you combine the fundamental role of trust with our ability to interpret and rationalize our behaviors to ourselves, this becomes a combustible formula with potentially damaging outcomes.

  • Part of the trivialization of trust results from our eagerness to be harmlessly misled. In the search to be distracted, entertained with trifles, and amazed, we are prepared to "suspend disbelief." Restricted to entertainment only, this is fine, but this misdirection has become part of everyday life and we have not only become ready to accept it, but even willing to inflict it upon ourselves. Here more than anywhere, we need to find and maintain the balance we consistently promote. We must be more vigilant about the dangers of being routinely misled. The expression "the price of freedom is vigilance" conjures up images of old-time sentries stood on fortress' ramparts, protecting from enemies without. The inference is that the enemies of freedom come from the outside, and that is where our vigilance must be directed. We know from history; the threats to freedom are more likely to be from within. We must be more vigilant against the constant compromising of the standards of trust. This insipid corrosion is creeping, but deadly. As Eric Barker uses the example of Moldova, none of us want to wake up one day, find we're living there, and ask, "how did that happen?".

  • Trust is multi-faceted. It has roots in neuroscience, psychology and can be argued logically (ideas like win-wins and mutually assured destruction). But it becomes prone to interpretation, and human emotion and not forgetting that uniquely human facet where we can pretty much justify anything to ourselves. Over the last 20 years, phrases like "what did they expect," "buyer beware," "that's the way it is," 'I was only doing what I thought was best," have become common excuses for weak moral character and declining integrity. We explore these dimensions in the third article in this series.

  • We might be facing a growing culture of untrustworthiness. J.M. Fenster, in her book "Cheaters Always Win," seems to argue that chicanery (a kind word for deceit) is part of the American Way. We'll discuss that more in our next article, but it's worth pointing out the validity of her observation and the obvious challenge of balancing tolerance while maintaining standards.

So where does this leave us? It seems that I can't trust you (based on the evidence of recent trust betrayal), and I cannot trust myself (based on our apparent biases and desire to be deceived). Contemplating if the harmless illusions from magicians and entertainers become a slippery slope that dulls our senses, returns us to how one chooses to define trust and challenges us to find the balance between trivial trifles and genuine fraud. Otherwise, as Michael Cain’s character Cutter in "The Prestige" seems to point out, the biggest culprits in deceit might well be ourselves.

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