Trust And Trustworthiness

Scott Alexander, a psychotherapist, is one of my favorite bloggers. All his patients, he says, give calm and considered analysis of their problems. This isn’t the experience of all psychotherapists. Many of them often have patients who have emotional meltdowns. Why is this so, he wonders.  Scott doesn’t think they are all making things up. They are probably telling the truth. It could be just that emotional, dramatic psychotherapists have emotional, dramatic patients and calm, rational psychotherapists have calm, rational patients. This, he hints, says more about psychotherapists than about their patients. And this fits in well with a broader trend. Some people think the world is full of trustworthy people. Some others think the world is full of backstabbing Machiavellians. It seems we all live in different worlds.

I think I’ve a better explanation. I suspect autistics are more likely to see a world full of backstabbing Machiavellians. Neurotypicals are more likely to claim that people are basically good. I think there are reasons why neurotypicals find the world more trustworthy. Normal human beings love to see themselves and others as more trustworthy. This doesn’t mean, deep down, they really trust others. They don’t.  They speak as if these conscious beliefs are true, and act as if they are not. Deep down, they are extremely paranoid, and this is why it is much harder to take advantage of them. 

To judge ourselves and others, normal human beings rely on certain assumptions, which they aren’t really conscious of. Their conscious beliefs usually clash with these assumptions. “I trust people” is just a conscious belief that helps them deceive themselves to deceive others. They don’t really believe that. This is why they are so good at manipulating others. They’d have found it very hard to manipulate people if they had allowed their dark view of human nature to come to surface. But they are driven by such dark assumptions nevertheless. The dark assumptions about human nature which neurotypicals rely on to deceive other people are the same assumptions which they use to avoid being deceived. In other words, we use the same tools to deceive others and to avoid being deceived. 

People are basically good, for example, is one such fraudulent assumption. People donate to charity because they want to help others, is another such fraudulent assumption. Neurotypicals speak as if these assumptions are true, but act as if they are not. So for people who are deceptive, it doesn’t look like the world is full of backstabbing Machiavellians, though deep down they know that it is. To get good at deception, it is important to maintain these conflicting views of human nature. 

This also explains why some people, especially autistics, feel cheated by everybody. People who are more clear-headed find the world full of backstabbing Machiavellians. They tend to be more trustworthy. But to form inferences about human nature, they rely too much on introspection, and are shocked to find out that normal humans are so different from them. They end up feeling disillusioned, and are more likely to rant against people who are not trustworthy. They are bad at maintaining such conflicting views of human nature in their minds.

Economist Garret Jones once asked, “Why do people talk so much about trust when genuine trust is impossible without trustworthiness?” I think that’s an important observation, and has a lot to do with people maintaining these two conflicting view of human nature. 

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