A pessimistic view on Trust

Trust is one of those concepts in IdM that are hard to define or measure, yet are at the basis of most of our transactions. There are a few different ways to look at trust or capture its essence, including reputation systems, assurance frameworks, and similar solutions. At the end of the day, however, it most often comes down to this:

Basic law of trust (BLT): Alice will only trust Bob in a transaction, if the benefits outweigh the perceived risk plus her personal margin of safety.

Sometimes there are situations where we MUST trust another party (through legal requirements or lack of other options), but these can be seen as special cases.  

Now, applying the BLT, one has to manage both parts of the equation: risk (including the safety margin) and benefits. The benefits can be rather manifold, and cover all aspects of internet usage: services, purchases, personal enjoyment.

The risk on the other side can also fall into different categories: financial, reputation, legal, etc. In many cases the financial risks are most prominent: for example, when I buy some book on the internet, how can I be assured that (i) I really get the book, and (ii) my financial and personal information (shipping address) is safe and not misused. Obviously, I do have to trust the retailer and his ecosystem of partners (payment provider, shipping company, etc.) to perform the requested services to my satisfaction.

Reputation of the retailer does play a critical role: if I personally know people that had a good shopping experience at the retailer, and in addition know that there are (apparently?!) many good review by people I do not know, I am tempted to assume that the risk is not too big. At the end of the day however, it really comes down to this:

Financial trust – sue and collect: Alice will only trust Bob, if – in case something goes wrong – Alice has legal recourse and can expect Bob being able to pay sufficient damages.

I am not 100% sure if this is really at the foundation of trust in commercial transactions, but it seems to be at least one important factor. Obviously this is not a very optimistic point of view, hence the title of the blog entry.

One thought

  1. Gerry, I share your pessimism. Bottom line, a trust decision is ‘what are the chances Im going to get screwed in this transaction?’ and ‘Is the risk worth the potential gain.’


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