Who do you trust – really trust – to have your back in today’s world? For that matter, do you consider yourself to be trustworthy? These seem like straight forward questions but the answers may not be so simple. This may be because trust is more of a symptom than a cure.
Have you come across the results from the Australia Talks National Survey - the one specifically about trust? It seems we trust medical staff the most. Scientists come next. At the bottom, the least trusted are not politicians but celebrities, which begs a number of questions. For instance, where does the category of social influencer fit, is trust needed to buy products, and how is trust built in a world where we often don't know much about the people we deal with.
Those who hand a child across to a daycare centre for their first day know the grief this produces; this act of giving custody and care of something so precious to a bunch of strangers. Even though we do our homework and determine that the centre staff seem qualified, capable and kind, often we do not have the benefit of a relationship with the centre that has tested these qualities. Sadly, when the doors close much that runs counter to our values and expectations can begin, as is now visible with the commissioned report into aged care. So, what is the best way to judge a person, corporation or situation for trustworthiness and get it right? It may help to delve into some animal behaviour, since trust is not just a human issue.
Take for example cleaner fish. There are cleaning stations on tropical reefs where big fish come to be dealt with, much as we go to a dentist. Small, sleek, blue and black-striped wrasses enter the mouths of larger fish such as a groupers and surgeonfish, even moray eels, to pick off dead skin and parasites. A class of crustacean called cleaners shrimp do the same thing, and even venture into the mouths of divers who visit these outposts.
When in the mouths of these fish or eels the cleaners must trust that the open-jawed host is not going to munch them up as a tasty next meal. The host too, has to trust that the cleaners will not go too far and feed on healthy tissue as they clean that mouth. So, what keeps the partners honest?
The answer seems to be that a kind of contract exits: you clean my mouth by eating this dead skin and these parasites and I let you because I benefit from having them removed; I clean your mouth because I get food. There has to be mutual benefit or the system breaks down, and one concept that describes the way it can collapse is cheating.
Cheating is always present to some extent in every long-term interaction. It is seen in the cleaner station when fish that mimic the colours and patterns of the cleaner wrasse move in, lulling the big fish into opening their mouths. They have no intention of providing a service. Instead, they dart into the mouth and take nips of the healthy flesh then scoot out before they can be chomped.
There are many examples of cheaters in the animal kingdom, with a classic example involving cuckoos. These birds lay eggs in the nests of others, leaving the young to be reared by them, and using a number of tricks to ensure that the strategy works. In such cases the interaction is a simple case of social parasitism, where only one party benefits.
So, what controls whether a system develops into one that can be described as trusting and fair, containing mutual benefit, or becomes a cheater's paradise? In the case of the cleaning stations, why does the host or client tolerate free-loading? Why not simply cut the cheaters off? The answers appear to be found in a combination of awareness and an assessment of cost.
These interactions can be seen through the lens of trading partners in an economic exchange. Once recognised, cheating can be controlled in part by the ability of individuals to change trading partners, if dissatisfied with the services the client is receiving. For example, in the case of the bluestreak cleaner wrasse, client fish benefit from being cleaned (a need) but those that have access to more than one cleaner receive better service than those for whom only one cleaner is available. This is because they can chase off cheaters and at the same time still get the service from which they benefit.
The same seems to apply in our lives. It is perhaps why we humans dislike monopoly in all its forms. You may have come across the newly formed Athena group, which is focused on the growing asymmetry in relationships that involve Amazon.
A parasitic relationship develops when the cost of punishing a cheater gets too high. In the case of the cuckoo, the signals used (co-opted) to gain advantage are so fundamental to the survival of the host parent's chicks that to exclude them would mean a failure to rear the next generation. Ignoring these would end the cuckoo success but also the success of the host parents: a case of mutual destruction. In some examples of animal behaviour though, such altruistic behaviour is taken, as in the case of the exploding termites; and here we see it occurring in a way that maximises survival of the entire social group.
In our world view we assess risk of 'parasitism' or 'predation' by assessing level of trust. Perhaps a better way to look at this is through market dynamics. If there is opportunity to effectively remove benefit that flows to cheaters then the risk of encountering cheating is low. Once asymmetry creeps in though, via lack of transparency (removing awareness) and/or monopoly, the scales tip away from a system that works for all of us. Cost rises and opportunity diminishes. So it seems, success depends on collectively supporting transparency, cooperative approaches, and maintaining a diversity of suppliers.
Till next time – B.W. Cribb