Pursuit of Truthiness

my gut tells me I know economics

The Paradox of Trust

with 2 comments

We constantly make judgements, usually subconsciously, about how much to trust others. On average, we seem to be pretty decent at making these assessments- at first. But someone’s trustworthiness is not a fixed quantity. When someone knows that others trust them, they know that people are less likely to look for their possible misbehavior, and more likely to accept their version of events if evidence of misbehavior arises. Some people will take advantage of this trust to commit misdeeds.
The same analysis applies to professions, with the additional mechanism that people with bad intentions may seek out a place in trusted professions in order to commit their misdeeds with a reduced chance of being caught. The very fact that so many people trusted priests not to sexually assault children is what allowed it to happen so often. The very fact that most people trust police not to kill unjustifiably is what allows some to kill unjustifiably.
This seems like a bit of a paradox to me. Is it ever possible for a trusted profession to remain trustworthy for long? How? By trying as hard as possible to select for people of good character? This seems like a hard problem.
The paradox seems like a problem that others must have thought about a lot in many fields- literature, philosophy, and economics at the very least seem like they would be fruitful here. I think a game-theoretic analysis would be interesting, and may have no stable equilibrium. But nothing much comes to mind when I try to think of what others have said about this, besides “who guards the guards?”
What am I missing?


Written by James Bailey

December 5, 2014 at 12:35 am

2 Responses

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  1. James,

    I have a pretty good example for you, of how to (mostly) solve this problem: professional licensure.

    In the engineering world, the Professional Engineer designation has successfully safeguarded the American public interest for ~ 70 years. Think about how seldom you heart of a bridge or other building collapsing!

    Rigorous technical vetting, reference requirements, continuing educational requirements, and the threat of legal action actually manage to keep everyone pretty honest.

    I don’t know how well this would work in a less technical, or more subjective area though.


    December 5, 2014 at 10:40 am

    • It seems like competence is much easier to measure than integrity.

      James Bailey

      December 5, 2014 at 10:57 am

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