TRUSTABILITY, Your Greater Responsibility

My 8th Law of Trust states that the level of trust I have in you is the product of my Trustability, or my willingness to trust other people in general, and your trustworthiness. In workshops, I typically say that there is nothing you can do about the former (my trustability) and everything you can do about the latter (your trustworthiness). This is also why my Trust Habits workshop focuses on forming habits that will build your trustworthiness.

But that’s not entirely true. Even though very little, there is something that you can do to affect other people’s trustability, and with that comes responsibility. In this article, I will discuss trustability in a little more depth, show you how you can affect it, and emphasize the responsibility that comes with it.

What is Trustability?

We are the sum of our experiences, and our experiences dictate who we should trust and who we should distrust. In the early day of the COVID-19 vaccine availability, it was observed that 60% of the shots were given to white people, while only 6% were given to black people. It would be easy to blame this disparity on systemic racism, but there was something else. In the 40 years that started in 1932, the U.S. Department of Health conducted an experiment to study syphilis in African-American men in Tuskegee, Alabama. As part of the experiment, treatment was held from 399 men infected with the disease, some of which had died as a result. In 1972, details of the Tuskegee experiment became public, and it was promptly stopped.

Would you blame African Americans for not trusting white people in lab coats holding needles? Can you understand why they would not trust the American healthcare system? Would you understand why their trustability would be low?

There are several levels for the scope of trustability. The narrowest scope is trustworthiness, which is limited to a single person. That’s when the level of trust is mostly affected by that person’s behaviors and doesn’t affect trust in other people in a significant way. A little wider is the trustability you might have in a group of people you know personally or a type or category of people (for example, healthcare employees, police officers, pilots, etc.). At the top, the widest possible level of trustability applies to all people. When you don’t trust all people, you would have to shift the balance of your trustability to trusting yourself or God.

Why do we Generalize Trustworthiness?

In an ideal world, we would be able to assess the trustworthiness of every person individually, based on our direct knowledge of them. But, as Robin Dunbar found, our brain is limited to the number of people we know at any given level. As a result, we must generalize from a sample of people we know to all people, or all people in a certain category or of a certain type or occupation. Like in research, we use a sample rather than a census.

Three factors affect our inclination to generalize the trustworthiness of a small group of people to a whole population.

The first is whether we experience multiple instances of certain behavior that would cause us to trust (or distrust) that group of people. Imagine you received bad service from one flight attendant on one flight. Would you generalize it? Probably not. What if you received the same bad of service from all flight attendants on that flight? What if you experienced the same bad service from multiple flight attendants on the same airline? You will likely generalize that service level to all flight attendants on that airline, even though you only met a few of them. And if you experienced bad service from flight attendants on multiple airlines, you would probably generalize to all flight attendants.

The second factor is the severity or significance of the incident, for better or worse. The more significant it is, the more it will affect your trustability of a certain type of people (say, an EMT), even if you only interacted with one.

Finally, the third factor is whether you could rationalize the link between a certain behavior and belonging to a certain type or group of people. Can you see a cause and effect between that membership in the group of people and the behavior, enough to justify generalizing that behavior to the entire group, even if you only know a few members of it, or even one?

How and Why Should you Affect Trustability

The biggest effect your behavior has is, obviously, on your own trustworthiness. If someone trusts or distrusts you, it is not because of their trustability but your trustworthiness. However, since you are a member of a certain type or group of people, your behavior may affect the other person’s trustability as it extends to the entire group. If you are one of five people in the group, your behavior has a 20% impact on the person who generalizes their trustability to the entire group. Your impact is even bigger if you are the only person they were exposed to. I remember flying to Hungary after the collapse of the Soviet Union and having many people come “to meet the Israeli.” I knew that there was a good likelihood that I would be the only Israeli they ever encountered in their lives, and that had put a responsibility on me, just like your behavior puts an extra responsibility on you.

You are not the only person affected by your trustworthiness. Your trustworthiness affects the trustability of the person considering trusting you and other people of your kind, your type, your occupation, your nationality, or any other group you belong to. As a result, your trustworthiness also indirectly affects whether those other people in your group would be trusted. If I behaved in an untrustworthy way, those people in Hungary, not seeing any other Israeli, could think that this is how Israelis behave and, as a result, would not trust other Israelis.

Note that I didn’t suggest that only bad behavior affects trustability through this discussion. Behaving in an exceptionally untrustworthy way would negatively impact the other person’s trustability towards the group you are part of. However, behaving in an exceptionally trustworthy way would positively affect their trustability towards that group.

Here is some good news: the same things you do to affect your trustworthiness would affect the other person’s trustability. And it is still personal (Third Law of Trust) and contextual (Second Law of Trust) because trust is still relative. The same behavior could cause one person to trust you and another to distrust you. But whatever it does to the immediate level of trust they have in you, it will also do, on a smaller scale, to their trustability towards your kind of people.

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