Science of Trust

This section is concerned with an area of increasing importance and is intimately related to the other major topics discussed on this website, such as social networks, the new commons, edge organization, and self-organization. Through a combination of the new sciences and new technologies the notion of trust is taking on a scientific and technologically implementable character. I recommend reading an excellent study undertaken by the neuro-economist Paul Zak on trust.

Below is a proposal for a center to study trust scientifically and to create trust enhancing technologies and protocols.

Draft Proposal for A Center on the Science and Technologies of Trust To Restore Public Trust and Leadership

Without trust there can be no civil society, no market economy. From personal relationships to public partnerships, trust is both the bond and the lubricant of social discourse; it’s strength, a measure of the health and vitality of civic and economic institutions.


Sadly, wherever we look today public trust is in decline. In the corporate world, it is a casualty of the criminal frauds of Enron, WorldCom, Tyco, Global Crossing, and a slew of other prominent corporations. On Wall Street nearly every preeminent investment and commercial bank, brokerage house and mutual fund has been implicated in the defrauding of their shareholders, customers, and the public. The New York Stock Exchange – a charted agent of public trust – acted to undermine the very independence of the securities markets it was charted to protect.

After the Clinton impeachment and the recent presidential elections, trust is equally absent in the political arena where elected officials and once cherished democratic institutions are now greeted with cynicism and distrust. According to recent polls, the media too are trusted to be neither fair nor truthful.

In this climate of distrust, the challenge for business and government leaders alike is to find new ways of restoring public trust.


Experience to date would suggest that trust is one of those virtues that cannot be legislated. New laws can be written, stricter penalties can be imposed, and appeals to the public morality made, but to what avail? It is argued by some that trust is a moral quality that cannot be imparted through government action, but like morals themselves, are best inculcated through the teachings of family and church.

But why must we wait for blind historical forces to a usher in a new moral order? Is it possible that trust is an ingredient of all human conduct that can be measured and augmented to create more trustworthy institutions? Perhaps trust is not an elusive virtue, but a tangible artifact, a form of “social capital” which like the reliability of a network or the fidelity of a communications channel can be designed into public institutions to achieve unprecedented trustworthiness. In this sense, trust would be a quantifiable public good that is “earned” as a consequence of the manner and circumstances
of how people interact with one another.

Given that trust is tangible and so critical to public civility and economic prosperity, should not we make every effort to augment our capacity to trust through scientific investigation and technological innovation?


“These good acts give pleasure, but how it happens that they give us pleasure? Because nature hath implanted in our breasts a love of others, a sense of duty to them, a moral instinct. In short, which prompts us irresistibly to feel and succor their distresses.”

Thomas Jefferson, 1814

What makes the discussion of trust today different than in any other time in history, is that that it has become the object of scientific investigation and technological innovation. A variety of “hard science” disciplines, neuroscience, evolutionary biology and psychology and “new sciences” are converging on a scientific understanding of trust. These scientific findings in turn are leading to the design of social network technologies that spontaneously scale to generate trust relationships for a variety of economic and social activities. Not surprisingly, these findings have dramatically changed the scientific basis for our understanding of human nature.

Underlying all political theories are certain “folk” assumptions about human nature. These have been typically framed through appeals to a fictitious past, a “state of nature,” where early humans competed ferociously to advance their self interests. Much of contemporary economic theory and policy is still rooted in such foundation myths. For instance, one of the core principles of economic analysis, the notion of Nash Equilibrium, is based upon the premise that all “rational actors” are primarily motivated through “lucid greed”. As a consequence, significant additional social, economic and legal inducements are required to get people to trust one another. The argument goes that since people are not naturally inclined to trust another, public trust requires “wealth incentives” to motivate risk taking. According to this view, there is no inherent benefit to trusting or participating in a larger social effort. Against this hard-nosed argument of narrow self interest, Thomas Jefferson’s above quoted appeal to people’s “moral instinct” to help one another seems decidedly naïve and Polyannish.

But Science has weighed in on this debate and it seems that Jefferson was right. People are wired for trust. They have the “moral instinct”. It is called oxytocin, a neurotransmitter located in the hypothalamus that rewards acts of trust and social attachment. Contrary to the expectations of free market economics, evolution has wired people to feel better when they trust and help one another. In one sense trust is its own reward But in another sense, public trust is the way a group – a species – ensures its survival. Trust in this sense creates more effective collective and coordinated action, not only by reducing transaction costs, but selecting for those joint behaviors that exploit all the resources of a group.

So strong is the survival premium of people NOT endlessly competing with one another, (though competition certainly has its place,) that human beings have evolved “mirror neurons” that enable them to understand what others are experiencing, in short, to empathize with one another. Although people have a natural propensity to trust, trust is not necessarily ‘blind”. It requires transparency, accountability and credible ways of signaling success. Even though evolution has recognized the importance of trust by encoding it in many neural mechanisms, there still have to be certain types of “social scaffolding” in order for these innate social mechanisms of trust to function.

According to evolutionary psychologists and biologists, the human brain evolved many highly sophisticated social exchange algorithms for interpreting, signaling, and coordinating human interactions. It turns out that human beings evolved as a social species – not as atomic individuals, and hence, evolved joint innate mechanisms for shared behaviors and experiences. The reason that markets work is not because
of any individual capacity for reflecting on rational self interest, (“lucid greed”) but rather because of biologically encoded, preconscious mechanisms for joint social exchange and coordination. In other words, pricing mechanisms and exchange contracts are the social scaffoldings that trigger people’s
innate propensity to trust and exchange goods. Neurosciences and several neuro-economic experiments
have shown that the principal mental processes involved in economic activities are not conscious but preconscious, and hence, not reflective, utility maximizing nor principally self-interested.

The neurosciences continue to make extraordinary progress in understanding the specific neural pathways involved in human interaction and trust building. Experiments have demonstrated that there are specific neural mechanisms for trust – (detecting cheaters, sense of fairness, shame, fairness, etc.) and they have a high degree of social fitness value. Similarly, evolutionary biology and new branches of economics, neuro-economics and evolutionary economics, have documented the conditions under which certain social network roles and modes of interaction increase social trust, and thereby further overall economic fitness.

The science of trust is proceeding on two fronts. The neurosciences are mapping the mechanisms of trust in the brain and the evolutionary sciences (biology, psychology, sociology and economics) showing why such trust mechanisms evolved within groups and how they are necessary to create more fit and adaptive forms of human organization. Evolutionary biology and game theory are providing the basis for assessing which forms of social exchange are the more “evolutionary stable strategies”, thereby providing criteria to assess different approaches to public trust.

The implications for public policy of the findings of the science of trust are far reaching and profound. For the first time, political assumptions about human nature can be grounded in the hard sciences, which in turn, can provide the basis for leveraging that understanding to create more human, viable, and adaptive social and economic institutions.


According to the evolutionary anthropologist, Robin Dunbar, the human brain evolved to accommodate the complexities of social interaction and that it has reached an upper limit of 150 to 200 individuals that it can keep track off. Beyond that limit, the human brain can’t compute all the debits and credits, obligations, and protocols of social exchanges, and as a result confusion, distrust, and hierarchy can set in.

Technology may offer an important boost to public trust by augmenting the human capacity for social computation thereby making it possible to scale trust to include not just hundreds, but thousands and even millions of participants. The Internet from its inception was designed on the principle of gift exchange and it has grown to offer new forms of social exchange and work that were thought totally impossible just a decade ago. In addition to the well documented successes of the Open Source Movement, the success of eBay is perhaps the most powerful “existence proof” of the power and scalability of trust. With the exception of eBay founder, Pierre Omidyar, few economists thought that buyers and sellers were sufficiently predisposed to trust one another that they would undertake significant transactions with strangers over the Internet. Yet through trial and error and well honed intuitions about human nature, Omidyar recognized that given sufficient transparency, a credible system of ratings, and community accountability and enforcement, spontaneous communities of trust would self-organize to enable significant economic transactions. In eBay’s case, $12 billion in revenues in 2002.


Francis Fukuyama, the noted author of a major book on trust and economic well being, argued that “spontaneous sociability” underpinned the success of modern economies.” Recent multi-national studies on trust and economic well being have born out Fukuyama’s insights. They have shown that high trust societies have significantly lower incidents of crime and greater economic prosperity. Yet as long as trust is treated as a moral virtue, or as a cultural intangible, it will still be difficult, if not impossible to shape through policy. But if trust were something that Science can understand, and technologies can enhance, then it becomes a different ballgame altogether. Then trust can be approached as a malleable human artifact, which like health, longevity or income equity can be quantified and directly affected by technological and policy interventions.


As the sciences of trust begin to reveal the role and dimension of trust in social organization, the public policy and education challenge becomes how to translate this often esoteric knowledge into actionable public discourse. The first task is educational, to bring these findings to the attention of those in government, business, the non profit sector and academia and derive the implications of these findings for these different constituencies. It is our view that the implications of the science and technologies of trust will be so far reaching as to entail a rethinking of many of the key premises and approaches to public policy; in effect, bringing to an end the anecdotal thinking of the Enlightenment and ushering in a more rigorous scientific understanding that will have political and institutional implications for generations to come. Rather than pitting “free markets” against the “heavy hand” of top down government regulation, a trust approach offers a third alternative, one that creates a “context of trust” whereby conditions of transparency, mutuality and accountability trigger innate self-organizing social exchange processes that in turn catalyze Fukuyama’s spontaneous sociability.


How is it that in communities whose standard of living is below the poverty line, doors are unlocked, crime rates are low and the rates of civic participation are disproportionately high? Nothing in the water, their diet, or gene pool can account for the difference. It has nothing to do with financial incentives or rewards; there are none. Indeed they are considered insulting. But it has a great deal to do with transparency; everyone knows what the other is doing. And there is a shared identification, a recognition of interdependence, and mutual accountability. These same qualities are what are credited for the success of eBay and other open platforms of collaboration and public trust.

Similarly, in combat situations how is that young men that barely know each other will so willingly risk their lives for one another? No auction price or pricing mechanism could entice someone to attack a machine gun nest. Something else is at work; a complex interplay of what the highly respected writer on genomics and the evolution of cooperation, Matt Ridley, calls the interplay of nature and nurture.

Today, however, something very significant and unprecedented has occurred. Biological and digital technologies have blurred the lines between nature and nurture, and in doing so have initiated an new evolutionary epoch, called the Anthropocene, a geologic period, where human activity is the dominant force shaping the global ecology and evolutionary outcomes. The challenge is enormous and immediate, creating both exciting and harrowing prospects for new forms of human organization.

© 2006 John Henry Clippinger – All Rights Reserved

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