What Makes a Stranger Not So Strange

Most of the literature on trust among strangers comes from game theorists. Scholars perform simulations of so-called “trust games” to suggest that “impersonal trust” can develop under this or that circumstance. This literature is voluminous (the previous link is just one of many hits from a JSTOR search). The mere fact that trust among repeat actors can be seen in repeated evolutionary games should, at the very least, complicate a legal doctrine that necessarily extinguishes privacy upon disclosures. But you don’t have to understand (or agree) with game theorists to see the problem with such a bright line rule.

Over the last year, I observed different types of support group meetings, including Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and an HIV-positive support group. I interviewed several members, though many members declined to be interviewed, as I expected. These support groups thrive on privacy and anonymity. The very characteristic that made me want to study them was the very thing that would make it hard: members of such groups tend to know everything about a specific area of each other’s lives (their addiction), but often know precious little about a participant’s life and identity outside of what brought him to the group in the first place. In many cases, outside of the sponsor-recovering relationship, even last names remain unknown. And yet they share a secret that, unfortunately, retains a significant stigma in greater society.

This knowledge asymmetry is not always the case, I must admit. But for now, let’s accept the scenario: Participants are veritable strangers, except they know this one big secret about each other. This was in fact the story for most of the people I interviewed. And although this type of ethnography must always be a dubious source for grand conclusions about wide populations, we can still ask: Why do recovering addicts share their stigmatizing secret with strangers?

My research suggests it is because they all share the same stigmatizing secret. It is not simply that everyone shares the same secret or the same identity. People who are all Libras or all white males or all like Maroon5 do not necessarily feel a comfort level with those who were born at the same time, look the way they do, and listen to the same music, respectively. Rather, the shibboleth of a willingness to open up among strangers in this context is that everyone shares a stigmatizing identity. They trust each other not because they know them but because they know what they’ve been through in the greater world. And this is entirely reasonable.

I think this trust exists in other areas of life and not just in the unique support group environment. If it does, if trust develops among individuals who share a stigmatizing identity, then trust among so-called strangers can exist such that individuals would not be assuming the risk of further disclosure of a secret revealed to such a stranger.

I have designed a study to test this, using accepting/declining “friend” requests from strangers as a proxy. It is an imperfect proxy, but trust is hard to measure. But if we can control for other factors and see that friend requests from strangers are accepted more frequently by individuals who share a defining, stigmatizing characteristic — sexual minority status, is just one example — then we may have found a social determinant of trust among strangers.

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1 Response

  1. Brett Bellmore says:

    Not that I actually wish these people badly, but I’m trying to figure out why being inclined to uncontrolled drunkenness, or being a carrier for a deadly disease, or indeed anything which makes somebody dangerous to rely upon or associate with, shouldn’t carry a “stigma”. You think maybe people are morally obligated to ignore relevant information?