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How Many People Can You Trust?

How many people can you really trust? Is there a limit to the number of people you can trust? In this episode, I will answer this with a definite YES. But to answer the question “how many?” I would have to say, “it’s complicated.” In this episode, I will uncomplicate things. I will explain what factors affect how many people you can trust and how much you can really trust them. This episode is somewhat philosophical but would help you answer that question yourself. The answer will be based on several laws of trust, on the fact that trust is relative and dynamic, on what you have to lose, on time and intimacy, and, believe it or not, the size of your brain. And, yes, I will give you numbers.


How Much, and With What?

You can’t ask the question “how many people can I trust?” without acknowledging that trust is not binary but rather continuous (First Law of Trust). The question is, at what level do you need or want to trust people. You can trust more people with less or fewer people with more. You cannot trust everyone with your life, but you can trust many people with a $20 bill. You can have a high level of trust in 5 people (for example) or a low level of trust in 200 people. More on that later.

You also need to acknowledge the Second Law of Trust, that trust is contextual. You may be willing to trust more people in one context (for example, serving you food in a restaurant) and fewer people in another context (airline pilot, surgeon, etc.).


What do I Have to Lose?

Deciding to trust someone starts with realizing what you have to lose if that trust is abused. My definition of trust is The level to which you are willing to accept the potential negative consequences of giving control over something you have to another entity, expecting them to be able and do their best to avoid those consequences.

You must start with determining how much objective risk you are in and the possible negative consequences from that risk if not handled in a trustworthy way. Then, translate that objective risk into subjective fear of that risk. Trust mitigates the subjective fear and not the objective risk. Consider the risk of lending someone a $20 bill. What are the possible negative consequences? That you lose $20. Objectively, this is true for everyone. But if all you have in the bank is $100, the consequences are more severe to you than someone who has $100 million in the bank. You will have a higher bar of trustworthiness before you lend someone $20.


Who can I Trust?

You trust God, yourself, other people, and other things. The total level of trust you have is determined not by the number of people you know but by the level of fear you have that must be mitigated through trust (see the previous paragraph). In this case, the more you trust God, the less you have to trust yourself or others. The less you trust others, the more you might have to trust yourself, etc. It’s a zero-sum game.


Trust and the Size of Our Brain

Robin Dunbar, a British Anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist, performed studies that correlated the volume of a neocortex of different species to their social group size and found that a human can only have 150 “casual friends” in that group. Beyond that number, your friends are no longer friends per se, but rather acquaintances and less. But that’s a topic for another discussion. If this “friend” on Facebook request came from someone you know very well, or already consider a friend or family member in the real world (one of those 150 “close” friends), assuming you want to connect with them on Facebook, then you simply accept that request.


Time & Intimacy

Trustworthiness is built upon two groups of components: who you are (your competence, the personality compatibility with me, and the symmetry of our circumstances) and what you do (during an interaction). What you do during an interaction begins with your positivity. If a person’s contribution to interaction is consistently negative, there will be no trust (and probably no further interactions). So, you must start with positive contributions to interactions. Time (the length and frequency of interactions) and intimacy (email on the lowest end and one-on-one, in-person at the highest end) accelerate building trust.

However, you are limited by the amount of time and level of intimacy you can dedicate to multiple relationships. As a result, you will accelerate trust-building only with a few people.


So, how many people can you trust?

I reviewed many articles about the ideal size of the team. Oddly enough, none of them considered trust as a determining factor. The common wisdom showed numbers between 5 and 12, and one article stated that the best number is 4.6, which is not feasible. From my personal experience, I suggest that the optimal size for a high-trust, high-performance team would be 5.

This is why elite military units operate in small teams of 4 or 5. An army division would have about 1,500 soldiers. You wouldn’t know all of them, and therefore you can’t trust all of them. A battalion has some 500 troops; a company has 150; a platoon has 50; a squad has 15. The smaller the military unit is, the more likely you spend more time with them, and the more you trust them.

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