Who is Worth Trusting?


The world is complex, and we can manage some of its complexity by relying on others. But the world is also full of fools, predators, hucksters, and frauds.

Who is worth trusting? Tradition has stood the test of the ages, but the scientific era has shown that it's hardly absolute. Science converges on reality over time, but it has its own crises and is often too cumbersome for life's messy problems. Neither is sufficient on its own.

Can't we just try things out ourselves? Yes, that works wonderfully — if the test is fast, and cheap, and conclusive.

As I was thinking about this question, Robert Cialdini's Influence came to mind, and I realized I'd found a delicious angle on the problem.

Cialdini who?

Robert Cialdini's track record speaks for itself: professor emeritus in psychology and marketing at Arizona State University, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and glowingly endorsed by Nobel laureates like Daniel Kahneman and Richard Thaler.

But credentials aside, Influence: Science and Practice is a rich, practical, and fascinating read about the people who make us act against our own interests — the compliance professionals, in Cialdini's words — and how we can fight back.

The core insight of Influence is that compliance professionals convince us to act their interests instead of ours by exploiting our innate social tendencies, which Cialdini codifies into six principles. But with a bit of wisdom, each of these principles is also a sound way to filter out bad counsel.

Principle 1: Reciprocation

The tendency: We have a deeply ingrained sense of fairness and repayment. Cialdini mentions a stunning example: despite its deep poverty, Ethiopia gave five thousand dollars to Mexico in 1985 for earthquake relief. Why? Because in 1935, Mexico had sent aid to Ethiopia after it was invaded by Italy. Mexico's simple act had reciprocal force half a century later.

The exploit: The tendency works even if we receive something cheap or unwanted. Cialdini mentions another stunning example, though it's less common today: "gifts" of free flowers and books from Hare Krishna devotees in airports. Even if unwillingly received, these gifts exert a powerful social pressure on the recipient to reciprocally donate.

The counter-exploit: Take the gift and keep walking!

The useful truth: Favor advice from people who make true and substantial investments in your success through time, energy, money, and reputation. For me, these are family, close friends, and a few precious colleagues. The basic principle is skin in the game: someone who invests in you will win when you win and lose when you lose. If followed strictly, this principle cuts out most of the advice industry.

Related reading: the principal-agent problem.

Principle 2: Commitment and consistency

The tendency: We have a need to be self-consistent, and a major aspect of this is to follow through on our commitments to others. We perceive (healthily) consistent people as honest, dependable, trustworthy, and capable.

The exploit: Cialdini offers the example of American POWs in China during the Krorean War. The Americans were encouraged to take small actions that were "so mildly anti-American or pro-Communist as to seem inconsequential," such as being asked to state that America is not a perfect country. But the aggregate effect of such actions over time was exceptional compliance with Chinese authorities.

The counter-exploit: Call out the trick, even if it makes you look foolish.

The useful truth: Favor advice from people who are playing the same games as you. If I'm a total slob, why should you ever take my advice on getting organized? The basic principle is a solid ethos and reputation.

Principle 3: Social proof

The tendency: We have a deeply ingrained need to understand and follow what others are doing, especially if they are like us. This can lead to powerful and transformative collective experiences through festivals, religious services, or even a focused and mission-driven team.

The exploit: Social proof can be falsified. It can be as benign as a laugh track and as serious as astroturfing. It can even be fatal, as stampedes and crowd panics have sadly shown.

The counter-exploit: Cialdini treats social trust as a public good and recommends aggressive countermeasures to protect it: naming and shaming, boycotting, letter writing, ...

The useful truth: Favor advice that is followed by a large and diverse group of real people in your community of interest. Success across so many people and domains is what makes something fundamental.

Related reading: the bystander effect, behavioral contagion, the Werther effect, astroturfing.

Principle 4: Liking

The tendency: We like helping people we know and like. Physical attraction is part of it, but it also includes similarity, familiarity, and association with anything or anyone that makes us feel good.

The exploit: Attractive and superficially charming politicians. Sociopaths who put exceptional effort into their appearance. Association with high-prestige brands like the Olympics. Or on the other side, meteorologists who are blamed and hated for bad weather (yes, really).

The counter-exploit: Liking is diverse, so it has to be simple: notice when you like someone much faster than you would expect.

The useful truth: Favor advice from people who have their lives together: who are happy, capable, and familiar enough that we can understand them. Success across multiple domains in life is a sign of something fundamental.

Related reading: love bombing, Tupperware parties, parasocial interaction, halo effects.

Principle 5: Authority

The tendency: We have an innate respect for people who seem confident, assured, and successful. Professors, CEOs, governors — the examples are too numerous to mention.

The exploit: The authoritarian regimes of the twentieth century have shown how disastrously deference to authority can go. Or for a more precise example, consider the Milgram experiment. Even the trappings of authority are often enough to convince.

The counter-exploit: Distinguish between authority and expertise. Remember that the authority might not be playing the same game as you.

The useful truth: Favor advice in a domain from people who have real expertise and sustained success in that domain, which is a sign of knowing something fundamental. But beware of fake experts, who have the credentials and status of real experts without that regular feedback from reality.

Related reading: Gell-Mann amnesia, Nassim Taleb's Intellectual Yet Idiot.

Principle 6: Scarcity

The tendency: We have an innate tendency to focus on rare events and rare things. Rare items and experiences are more valuable and precious. Chillingly, Cialdini cites the example of how one Florida county used phosphate-cleaners en masse after a local ban went into effect: This sort of response is typical of individuals who have lost an established freedom and is crucial to an undestanding of how psychological reactance and scarcity work on us.

The exploit: Inflated prices, limited-time sales.

The counter-exploit: Notice the rise in emotional panic and urgency. Calm yourself and ask: why do you really want this?

The useful truth: This overlaps with Principle 5: favor advice from people with sustained success at winning something rare. But as before, beware the fake expert. And because rare things are by definition uncommon, there's also a strong selection bias here as well: there isn't always enough data to distinguish willful success from mere chance.

Related reading: artificial scarcity, boiler room business tactics, Dan Luu on what to learn.

The tidy conclusion

In the absence of other signals, favor advice from people:

  • who benefit from your successes and suffer from your failures
  • who are playing the same games as you
  • who are part of the community you aspire to
  • who you generally like and respect
  • who are domain experts with some contact with reality
  • who have enough sustained success that it's not a fluke

This includes family, close friends, and credible experts (especially if you have some kind of relationship with them).

In the absence of other signals, avoid advice from people:

  • who are only loosely connected to your successes and failures
  • who aren't playing the same games as you
  • who aren't aspirational figures to you
  • who you generally dislike
  • who show no signs of expertise
  • who might just be lucky flukes

This includes most self-help authors, marketers, bloggers, social media users, and the "terminally online."

And yes, I know this whole post is advice! Use your brain and decide if I'm credible or not.