Tue. Sep 22nd, 2020

Self-interest obscures trust in social life

Sociopolitical and personal valuations of trust fray our relationships (Photo Credit: Jack Portman/Old Gold & Black)

We need to trust our peers if we wish to live socially; this is so obvious as to not need stating. However, trust is inherently risky — it is a calculated risk but a risk nonetheless. At times it even seems counterintuitive to trust, because to trust is to expect beneficence and cooperation from another being imbued with self-interest and the incentive to act on it. We are all self-interested, and to varying degrees we tend to pursue our self-interests. Oftentimes, this pursuit, however benign, jeopardizes our commitment to certain of the terms of agreement that, either explicitly or tacitly, are implied in our trust-relations. We are aware of this tension, having experienced it ourselves, and thus know it to be true of our peers as well. And so concomitant with our vast and complex matrix of socially necessary trust-relations is an anxiety that our trust will be betrayed. This is a productive anxiety in a way (although it frequently feels cripplingly otherwise) because it compels us to constantly monitor the status of our terms of agreement with others, and to renegotiate those terms when necessary. That is, we check to ensure that our peers are upholding their ends of the bargain, that they aren’t duplicitously breaking our trust in their own self-interested pursuits.

There are a variety of theoretical approaches to understanding this tension. The Prisoner’s Dilemma famously outlines the sub-optimality of ostensibly rational self-interest. The Tragedy of the Commons likewise illustrates the degradative effects of self-interested behavior in the context of the finite resources available to us. We are incentivised to act in self-interest, but doing so seems to contribute to instability. We might then be compelled to take risk-aversive measures to counter the tenuousness of our trust-relations, however this itself can lead to  further degradations of trust. The Security Dilemma refers to situations in which measures taken by states to increase national security are perceived by other states as acts of aggression; analogously, steps taken to hedge against a peer’s potential failure to meet expectations of trust could be misunderstood as — and might actually be — a betrayal of their own trust in you. 

We are incentivized to act in self-interest, but doing so seems to contribute to instability.”

So by establishing trust-relations we make ourselves susceptible to risk, but efforts to counteract that risk and limit potential damages to our personal interests in cases of broken trust often complicate and worsen our established terms of trust. This is as true of the relations between states within the anarchic global context as of the relations between citizens and even close friends, and this anxiety-inducing trade-off is one we make, reaffirm and supervise continuously throughout our lives. Such is why our relationships often seem so profoundly fraught; marriages frequently don’t last, friends grow apart and families have fallings-out. We expect our peers to suppress their most natural impulses — those of self-interest — but know this to be a lofty expectation — one we ourselves often fail to meet — and so police the actions taken by others for early signs of betrayal. This surveillance, of course, only aggravates our anxiety, trapping us in a reflexive carcerality wherein our own activities are constantly surveilled while we keep tabs on our peers. 

Our satisfaction with our relationships is in large part predicated on our comfort with their terms and conditions, and on the calculus of risk and insurance which we constantly retabulate for potential errors and as new circumstances arise. I often wonder about the extent to which our relationships with our peers are, in this sense, transactional commodities. We all stand to benefit from our interactions with others – socializing allows us to navigate hierarchy, exert power, garner influence and generally gauge the state of things, all of which are perceived as necessary for the pursuit of self-interest. But these interactions are only beneficial insofar as we feel we are benefiting and can expect to continue to benefit; it is intuitive to cut our losses when we sense losses are imminent, or if we feel we are getting an unfair deal. 

Much has been written about the alienation of humans from their natural condition, and likewise of the role of capitalism in facilitating this alienation by introducing exploitation as a mediator of human relations. And it could be that people in pre-capitalist societies experienced a greater proclivity for trust and a lesser tendency for obsessive social calculus. I am not sure whether this is true, or even if it is, whether it really meant pre-capitalist humans suffered less and maintained healthier relationships. However, it does seem clear that anxieties surrounding trust are to blame for great amounts of interpersonal strife and geopolitical tension, and that great amounts of political-economic language and theory seems conspicuously at-home in discussions about trust. As politically and economically implicated as it appears to be, trust so deeply permeates our recognitions of and interactions with our peers that, despite its ubiquity as an object of social obsession, we often fail to reflect on the extent to which our unrealistic valuation of trust affects the way we experience life. Considerations of the steps we might take to strengthen our trust-relations while moderating our expectations of others, such as through radical forms of transparency and vulnerability, seem worthwhile and, frankly, therapeutic.