Trust is What Makes an Expectation of Privacy Reasonable

A few weeks ago, I defined trust as a favorable expectations as to the behavior of others. It refers to a behavior that reduces uncertainty about others to levels that us to function alongside them. This is a sociological definition; it refers directly to interpersonal interaction. But how does trust develop between persons? And is that trust sufficiently reasonable to merit society’s and the state’s protection. What follows is part of an ongoing process of developing the theory of privacy-as-trust. It is by no means a final project just yet. I look forward to your comments.

Among intimates, trust may emerge over time as the product of an iterative exchange; this type of trust is relatively simple to understand and generally considered reasonable. Therefore, I will spend little time proving the reasonableness of trust among intimates.

But social scientists have found that trust among strangers can be just as strong and lasting as trust among intimates, even without the option of a repeated game. Trust among strangers emerges from two social bases—sharing a stigmatizing identity and sharing trustworthy friends. When these social elements are part of the context of a sharing incident among relative strangers, that context should be considered trustworthy and, thus, a reasonable place for sharing.

Traditionally, social scientists argued that trust developed rationally over time as part of an ongoing process of engagement with another: if a interacts with b over t=0 to t=99 and b acts in a trustworthy manner during those interactions, a is in a better position to predict that b will act trustworthy at t=100 than if a were basing its prediction for t=10 on interactions between t=0 and t=9. This prediction process is based on past behavior and assumes the trustor’s rationality as a predictor. Given those assumptions, it seems relatively easy to trust people with whom we interact often.

But trust also develops among strangers, none of whom have the benefit of repeated interaction to make fully informed and completely rational decisions about others. In fact, a decision to trust is never wholly rational, it is a probability determination; “trust begins where knowledge ends,” as Niklas Luhmann said. What’s more, trust not only develops earlier than the probability model would suggest; in certain circumstances, trust is also strong early on, something that would seem impossible under a probability approach to trust. Sometimes, that early trust among strangers is the result of a cue of expertise, a medical or law degree, for example. But trust among lay strangers cannot be based on expertise or repeated interaction, and yet, sociologists have observed that such trust is quite common.

I argue that reasonable trust among strangers emerges when one of two things happen: when (1) strangers share a stigmatizing social identity or (2) share a strong interpersonal network. In a sense, we transfer the trust we have in others that are very similar to a stranger to the stranger himself or use the stranger’s friends as a cue to his trustworthiness. Sociologists call this a transference process whereby we take information about a known entity and extend it to an unknown entity. That is why trust via accreditation works: we transfer the trust we have in a degree from Harvard Law School, which we know, to one of its graduates, whom we do not. But transference can also work among persons. The sociologist Mark Granovetter has shown that economic actors transfer trust to an unknown party based on how embedded the new person is in a familiar and trusted social network. That is why networking is so important to getting ahead in any industry and why recommendation letters from senior, well-regarded, or renowned colleagues are often most effective. This is the theory of social embeddedness: someone will do business with you, hire you as an employee, trade with you, or enter into a contract with you not only if you know a lot of the same people, but if you know a lot of the right people, the trustworthy people, the parties with whom others have a long, positive history. So it’s not just how many people you know, it’s who you know.

The same is true outside the economic context. The Pew Internet and American Life Project found that of those teenagers who use online social networks and have online “friends” that they have never met off-line, about 70 % of those “friends” had more than one mutual friend in common. Although Pew did not distinguish between types of mutual friends, the survey found that this was among the strongest factors associated with “friending” strangers online. More research is needed.

The other social factor that creates trust among strangers is sharing a salient in-group identity. But such trust transference is not simply a case of privileging familiarity, at best, or discrimination, at worst. Rather, sharing an identity with a group that may face discrimination or has a long history of fighting for equal rights is a proxy for one of the greatest sources of trust among persons: sharing values. At the outset, sharing an in-group identity is an easy shorthand for common values and, therefore, is a reasonable basis for trust among strangers.

Social scientists call transferring known in-group trust to an unknown member of that group category-driven processing or category-based trust. But I argue that it cannot just be any group and any identity; trust is transferred when a stranger is a member of an in-group, the identity of which is defining or important for the trustor. For example, we do not see greater trust between men and other men perhaps because the identity of manhood is not a salient in-group identity. More likely, the status of being a man is not an adequate cue that a male stranger shares your values. Trust forms and is maintained with persons with similar goals and values and a perceived interest in maintaining the trusting relationship. But it is sharing values you find most important that breed trust.For example, members of the LGBT community are, naturally, more likely to support the freedom to marry for gays and lesbians than any other group. Therefore, sharing an in-group identity that constitutes an important part of a trustor’s persona operates as a cue that the trustee shares values important to that group.

What makes these factors—salient in-group identity and social embeddedness—the right bases for establishing when trust among strangers is reasonable and, therefore, when it should be protected by society, is that the presence of these factors is what justifies our interpersonal actions. We look for these factors, we decide to share on these bases, and our expectations of privacy are based on them.

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