Disambiguating Trust

I’ve been having a recurring thought lately about the idea of trusting people.

More specifically, I’ve been thinking about the idea of asking “Do you trust this person?”. It’s a very simple question and the more I think about it an incredibly oversimplistic one.

In my experience, asking whether or not you trust someone is generally about whether or not you trust their intentions. The answer to that question is yes if they want good things for you and generally try to do right by you. The thing is, in an enormous number of situations knowing that isn’t enough.

The set of people whom I trust to have good intentions toward me is much larger than the set of people I would trust with confidential information about me, for example. It’s not just about trusting intentions, it’s about trusting abilities as well.

For example, if a company I’m applying to asks me to fill out a form and email it back to them, and that form includes personally identifying information such as my Social Security number, address, date of birth, etc., I may be able to trust that they don’t intend to give my information to anyone else, but I can’t trust that they have any idea what precautions are important to prevent anyone else from getting it. Asking someone to send that kind of information over email is a dead giveaway that you have no idea which forms of communication are reliably secure and which aren’t. It means I can’t trust you with my personal information even if I can trust your intentions.

I find that in many situations “What can I trust this person about?” is a better question than “Can I trust this person?”. The set of people I know who I am comfortable discussing my gender with, for example, is much smaller than the set of people who I think would be okay with and supportive of it in a general way. Positive intentions are great, but they are not the only thing I need to trust someone with that information. I also need to trust people to judge accurately who I would be comfortable having that information shared with and who I wouldn’t. I need to be able to trust them to understand it well enough that I wouldn’t have to spend long conversations with them dealing with microaggressions.

I made a post last year about a situation that is another good example of this principle (paraphrased somewhat for conciseness):

A friend of mine volunteered to have every-other-weekly get-togethers to offer support. I, however, was apprehensive that by needing that support that often, I was going to be too heavy a friend.

When I expressed that fear, she responded by telling me that this wasn’t something she had decided to do blindly. She had considered, in making the offer, that the worst-case scenario was that it would consist of nothing but giving me support every single time we did it. She had considered that, and decided that doing that every-other-weekly would be handleable for her.

I can’t think of a better example of what it means to be a mature adult than this. To be sufficiently aware of, first, the fact that that kind of worst-case-scenario assessment is important to make when offering this kind of support, and, second, to be sufficiently aware of how many spoons that commitment may cost you to make an accurate assessment of whether or not that worst-case scenario would be a manageable commitment to make.

It’s so much easier to trust someone who says they can offer you something when you feel like you can trust that person to know whether or not they are offering something that they are genuinely capable of following through on.

As mentioned in that post, this also speaks to the importance of being able to self-assess with respect to things like this. It was not, in the above situation, my trust in my friend’s good intentions toward me that made me trust them more after we had that conversation. My trust in their good intentions toward me was pretty much the same after as before. It was the trust I had that they would and could think about and accurately predict not just whether or not they wanted to help, but also whether or not they were capable of offering to help that they wanted to be able to offer.

One last example, because I think it fleshes out the point well: I trust different of my friends to have accurate knowledge about different things, and to be more or less skeptical about what they think they know. If a biologist friend of mine tells me “Did you hear they found the gene responsible for X disease?”, I assume that really happened whereas with another friend of mine, I might think it’s more likely they read some massively oversimplifying article in a magazine somewhere.

Trust is fiddly. Whether or not I trust someone is too simple a question to be very useful in many situations. Some people I trust in certain specific ways, and other people I trust in certain other specific ways. Some people I trust about different things in different degrees. So much of the time, the difference isn’t about trusting intentions, but trusting things like knowledge and capability. It’s not about whether I trust a person, it’s about what I trust them about.

By ResearchToBeDone Posted in other

One comment on “Disambiguating Trust

  1. Perfectly put! This also points out just how bad the situation is when you can’t even trust a person’s good intentions, let alone their ability to act upon those intentions.

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