The Risk of Trust

Last Saturday morning I drove to the historic Many Glacier Hotel and the boat dock on Swiftcurrent Lake. I arrived forty-five minutes early. Two in our party had said they wouldn’t make it. I had bought tickets already—$27.50 each—for twelve of us. I would be out fifty-five dollars. So I arrived early—to sell the tickets.

Fifty people milled about the spacious hotel lobby. Many wore lanyards around their necks—part of organized tours. Tourists. They had already paid the boat fare. I would find no customers among them. I wandered into the hotel shop and struck up a conversation with a member of our party.

“I have two extra tickets if you know of anyone that might want them.”

People were still buying coffee and rubbing bleary eyes. So I said it softly, but loud enough for others to hear. A young couple in line asked what time the boat would leave.

“Nine o’clock.”

“How much are the tickets?”

“Twenty-seven fifty each. I have two.”

“We may want them. Will they sell out at the dock?”

“Probably. They look busy.”

“Can you give us a few minutes?”

“Sure. I’ll be sitting in the lobby.”

They were still planning their day. I went back to the lobby to let them deliberate. Hiking. Boating. Bear-watching. They had lots of options.

A few minutes later, the young woman, Gina or Jenny or Lisa—I don’t remember her name—came over to where I was sitting.

“We want to take the boat, but we don’t have enough cash to pay you.”

“Do you use Venmo?”

“Yah. Can we Venmo you?”

“Yup.”

She pulled out her phone and looked at the screen for a moment. “I don’t have service.”

“I know. Can I give you my number and you can Venmo me when you have service?”

“You’ll do that?”

“Sure.”

“We’re headed down tomorrow and we’ll have service then.”

“That works.”

“What’s your number?”

I gave her my number and I could see she was creating a new contact on her phone.

“Can I get your last name, Paul?”

I spelled out my last name.

“Thanks so much. We’ll Venmo you as soon as we’ve got service.”

“Right on.”

•  •  •

In January 1986 I was leaving Cuzco, Peru, on my way back to Lima. Joey, another American I had met along the way, was headed to Ecuador. He was out of cash and needed a few dollars to get back to his girlfriend in Quito.

“How much do you need?”

“Twenty bucks should be enough. I’ll pay you back when I get home.”

I gave Joey twenty dollars and my home address.

Five months after I left Peru, I got a note in the mail from Joey. I made it to Ecuador. My girlfriend and I broke up. Probably for the better. Thanks for the twenty. Stay cool. Joey.

Folded in the note was a crisp twenty-dollar bill. I found out that Joey lived in Castle Rock, Colorado. I hadn’t know that before. I wrote him back and sent him a couple photos from our short trip into Bolivia. I think he hadn’t wanted to bring his camera to La Paz.

•  •  •

When I left Gina (or whatever her name was) in the lobby of the hotel, someone who had watched our interaction approached me and advised me that I should have taken her number rather than just give her mine, that I had taken a big risk. I nodded. I understood the risk. Fifty-five dollars.

But I like to conduct social experiments. Most are free. And even fifty-five dollars is a relatively small admission to see into a person’s psyche. I once risked $2,000 in a similar experiment. I loaned that much to an ex-girlfriend in college. We had broken up before I went to work in Alaska. When I came back to school, flush with a handful of cash, she told me she hadn’t been able to save enough while working in California. She needed money for tuition. She said she would pay it back after she graduated and began working the next year. I loaned it to her, and kicked off another social experiment.

My ex-girlfriend and Joey and Gina have all been subjects of social experiments with a common thread: Trust. And how will people behave when they know they are trusted?

Don’t get me wrong. I gave the cash because I wanted to help someone, or I wanted to recover the fifty-five dollars. But I also did it because I trust people and I believe people are inherently trustworthy. And more than this: I believe people are deserving of trust, that trust can elevate a person. Goethe said it best: The way you see people is the way you treat them, and the way you treat them is what they become.

In 1964 Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson set out to prove Goethe’s axiom, and specifically to find evidence that a South San Francisco schoolteacher’s higher expectations would promote greater academic achievements in the students who were designated academic “bloomers.”

Rosenthal and Jacobson were vindicated. The group of students—chosen at random, and many of them representing low-income Mexican families—showed significant gains above the students who had not been designated “bloomers.”

Rosenthal called this the Pygmalion Effect: the phenomenon whereby higher expectations lead to an increase in performance.

The teacher Rosenthal and Jacobson included in their experiment—23-year-old Beverly Cantello—wasn’t aware that the group of “bloomers” were a random selection from her classroom. She had been told—and she consequently believed—they were gifted students and so she treated them differently, with greater expectations. They blossomed. They becamegifted students.

But researchers had difficulty replicating the experiment. Why? Because in the new round of studies, the researchers told the teachers that the students were not actually academic “bloomers,” but to treat them as though they were. In the October 2015 article in Discovery Magazine titled Being Honest About the Pygmalion Effect, Katharine Ellison says this: “In that experiment and hundreds of similar subsequent ones, the expectations Cantello and her fellow teachers had for their students were fruitful only when [the teachers’] behaviors were subconsciously driven, suggesting they might not have been able to earnestly alter their behavior if they had known the truth about their students from the beginning.”

In other words, it wasn’t enough for the teacher to be told a student was exceptional. For a student to make significant improvements, the teacher had to truly believe the student was exceptional.

•  •  •

The person in the hotel lobby who told me I had taken a big risk was right. I did take a big risk. Fifty-five dollars.

But there was a greater risk, a much larger danger. A second person in that lobby commented on my exchange with Gina. He had laughed and said that I had no other choice except to trust that Gina would send the money later. But I did have other choices. I could have asked for Gina’s contact information. I could have sold the tickets to any number of people who had cash. I probably could have even raised the price and “scalped” the tickets for more than I paid for them. I could have told Gina I didn’t want to sell to her, that—even if I had her contact information—I had no guarantee she would pay.

But then I would have risked losing more that just fifty-five dollars. I would have sent a nuanced signal to Gina: that I didn’t trust her. That was the greater risk—that she would sense distrust in my tone or language.

Instead, I took the fifty-five-dollar risk and began a social experiment, not only with Gina, but with the onlookers who had been critical of my choice—a choice they considered reckless. I wanted all participants in this experiment to know that I valued trust and trustworthiness more than fifty-five dollars, and that I believed in the goodness of people, and that I believed—absent any contrary indications—people should be trusted. Ms. Cantello believed her students to be exceptional, and they became exceptional.

•  •  •

It is a little after noon on Monday as I write this—two days since Gina agreed to contact me. My ex-girlfriend has never repaid the $2,000 I loaned her so many years ago. We didn’t draw up a formal contract. She has probably forgotten the debt, and I have forgiven it. So, we’re square. I hope she knew that I trusted her. Only that matters now. Joey and I are square, too.

•  •  •

At 12:43 today, while I was mostly finished with writing this, I received a text: Hi Paul, this is Rachel. Hope you had a great rest of your trip. When you have a minute can you text me your Venmo name and I will send the $$ for the boat tickets? Thanks!

I think she was from Minnesota. I corrected the error in my social experiment: Her name wasn’t Gina. Her name was Rachel.

4 thoughts on “The Risk of Trust

  1. I’ve dealt with a fair few damaged teens over the years… the kind that will lie and steal from you to fund the illicit activiies they have turned to, feeling they had no other way of making their presence in the world be felt. If you give them trust and let them know that you believe in them, even when they do let themselves down along the way, it is surprising what can happen long term. Keep showing them trust, and eventually they earn it and value it. Of all those damaged teens, only one has continued to abuse any trust shown…the others are all fine young men, making a difference to the world.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love this! I’ll add the caveat that, of course, only risk what you can afford. I do a different version – when I’m in line at a store or cafe, and someone ahead of me comes up short, or discovers they’ve left their wallet or card at home, I’ll cover them – I’ll say “let me buy you lunch!” Or if a friend needs to borrow money, I gift it to them instead. I ask them to pay it forward, when they have the means to help and they see someone in need. I have trust that they will. And I hope that, like ripples in a pond, kindness will spread exponentially.

    Liked by 1 person

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