In nobody we trust

The turtle dove is the symbol of the Roman goddess of trust, Fides. It takes two turtle doves to make a proper gift on the second day of Christmas. (IMAGE: John Gerrard Keulemans, 1869)

Polls show that we Americans trust almost nothing. Not government, the media or corporations. Not political parties, doctors or scientists. We don’t even trust our own side of any given argument.

Then again, who trusts polls? How would we know?

Every day, people take to social media complaining of broken trust with their partners, friends or family, neighbors or co-workers. They become the dense burning sun of victimhood, grievances orbiting like planets. Every time, we read and wonder if we can trust the people in our lives. Is anything to which we cling bolted to the ground?

In 2017, Canadian game developer and critical theorist Nicky Case created an interactive game and philosophy demonstration called “The Evolution of Trust.” Users play a game that tests their instincts about trust.

Imagine if there was a machine that gave two people two coins each if both put in one coin at the exact same time. If they trust each other, they both double their money. But if your partner withholds their coin while you put one in, they get two coins and you get none.

Is it a competitive advantage to trust, to take, or to trust only when a person proves worthy of our trust?

Case presents several different types of players in this game. Some trust everyone, all the time. Others are there to take, never keeping their end of the bargain. Still others trust at first, but then follow the lead of whatever the other person does first. Then, some players behaved randomly. At the end of each round, players with the fewest coins are eliminated. Eventually, only one kind of player wins.

At this point, Case’s game asks you to try your luck. What kind of a person are you? As a naturally self-righteous person, I decided to trust implicitly. But a worldly voice in the back of my head suggested that the least trustworthy players would probably come out on top.

Wrong on both counts. Those who trusted blindly were indeed snookered for their coins. But the takers, those who always withheld their coins, also faced quick elimination The players that did the best were those who trusted at first, but then mimicked the behavior of the other players from that point forward. The most the takers could steal from them was one thin coin.

At this point in the experiment, it seems that the best philosophy is a simple one, “Do unto others as they would do unto you.” But Case pushes deeper. For instance, some of the players were set to randomly apply their first coin. These players did not win, but were capable of being trustworthy after the first play.

What Case found was that communication problems degrade trust. We know the world has givers and takers, but most folks fall in between. When we distrust, we don’t always know why people wronged us. They may not know what they did to cause us to respond the way we did.

Case ran another experiment. It turns out that the most successful strategy is more complex. Players who trusted first, responded to what the other players do, but then tried trust again later in the turn, actually did slightly better than those who judged solely what their partners did on the first turn.

At the root of this all lies a profound idea. What if the rampant distrust in our society is really rooted in our failure to communicate with other human beings? Technology mimics interactions with other people, but time on a phone is actually time spent alone.

According to Harper’s Magazine, Americans spent about three hours per week with friends in 2021. That’s 58 percent less time with friends than 2013, just eight years earlier. Our social lives are collapsing just as our jobs  become more automatic.

Americans spend 23% more time alone than a decade ago. More than twice as many people live alone than in 1960.

You know as well as I do how people are spending this alone time. We’re watching television or surfing on our phones, placing our coins into a system built to foment distrust.

Our nation derives strength from its diverse and intertwined communities. We build on the notion that from the many, we might become one. But these ideals are just muttered slogans without basic trust.

The best strategy is to trust, but verify. And then talk. It’s the only way we all win. Trust is not weakness, but medicine.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Saturday, Jan. 27, 2024 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.


  1. Pronny William Cortes says

    Well said and spot on. Love it…..

  2. Fred Schumacher says

    We haven’t recovered yet from Covid. Our old life is still out of reach. I think much of the life dissatisfaction that shows up in polls is a function of Covid. Prior to that time, we had the Viet Nam War, which lowered our trust in government, then along came Newt Gingrich, who turned government into a blood sport. Administrators got control of higher education, and the tax cutting craze reduced government support of education, all of which resulted in an increase in tuition. It’s no longer the post-WW II world where untouched America had 50% of the world’s manufacturing capacity. Everybody else caught up, and we don’t get to dictate to the rest of the world.

  3. The Great Depression and WWII changed American attitudes toward trust and commonality. The lesson from those international catastrophes was “work together or perish” and that rugged individualism was disastrous as the very existence of democracy and capitalism teetered on the brink. Then the Cold War put us in an odd position. Locked in a competition to the death, capitalism and American biases were faced with a dilemma: in order to survive, the controllers of capitalism were forced to alter basic values. Workers received a much larger piece of the pie, racism and nativism were stigmatized, and science and technology were allowed to lead. The goal was to present a face to the world more attractive than that of communism and to stop broadcasting unpleasant features of our culture that could handicap us in the competition with communism.

    Then the Iron Curtain fell. It was no longer necessary to appear more humane and enlightened than we traditionally were. Racism, nativism, jingoism, white supremacy, monumental greed, epic selfishness, open viciousness, glorification of ignorance, and attacks on recognizably “other” people came roaring back, returning us to the great values of the Gilded Age.

    Destroying your own self-interest in order to crush your neighbors is once again the norm, as is the firm policy that your personal idiosyncratic beliefs and myths trump (opps, an inadvertent pun) the rights and the very right to exist of other people. Welcome back, social Darwinism and the primacy of ignorance.

    Hopefully, the pendulum will swing back. There is already a world-wide belief that democracy doesn’t work, and that it is best to trample people who are different than us. Only change in the US and other advanced democracies can repair that.

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