Skip to content ↓

trust by Vincent H. '23

how do you decide who to trust when there are lots of untrustworthy people?

as a kid, i used to always be on edge when interacting with people. for instance, i remember when i was in elementary school, my parents would drop me off at the gym and i would run laps around the track, and every time an adult passed me i’d tense up and brace for the possibility that they tried to kidnap me. i spent most of my childhood distrusting every stranger i encountered, and it took me a long time to realize that this impulse might actually be doing me more harm than good, and that the vast majority of people are safe to be around in the vast majority of situations

the problem with being suspicious of everyone is that interacting with sketchy-looking people presents obvious risks, but it can also lead you to great outcomes that you otherwise would never experience. for instance, last fall i filled out a google form to go live with 30 strangers in the desert, and it was really difficult to tell beforehand whether my housemates would be good people or not, but i ended up having a great time and making a lot of friends. or as another example, one of the internships i’m considering next summer is a 4-person company where the ceo initially reached out to me via a facebook message that looked like a scammer text, but after talking with the company further i realized they had an incredible team and were tackling a meaningful problem

there are some dubious figures in my life, like former teachers who write blogs about how covid is a hoax and vaccines don’t help, and founders of obscure startups that usually don’t have any revenue or long-term plan, and because i try to give everyone a chance to be taken seriously i’ve wasted quite a bit of time talking to these kinds of people. if i refused to interact with anyone that looked untrustworthy at first glance, i would’ve saved myself all that time and also drastically reduced my exposure to scams, but i also never would’ve met those friends or gotten that job offer from the previous paragraph, and ultimately that is not a tradeoff i’m willing to make

i don’t mean to minimize the risks associated with trust though. manipulative and predatory behavior are very real problems in the world, even in mit-adjacent social circles

for example, a few months ago i heard about several instances where staff at various high school programs used their staff positions to insert themselves into specific students’ social lives and become friends with them. the students thought they were becoming friends with the staff because they naturally liked each other or whatever, but the truth was probably closer to 1) staff likes student 2) staff uses their power to repeatedly engineer situations that cause student to develop favorable opinion of staff 3) student thinks they like staff as a result. obviously i can’t prove this is what happened in each scenario, but i believe this is a common pattern from the staff perspective because i considered attempting something similar myself a while back

without going into too much detail, once upon a time i was a staff member for a summer program. there was a student who i thought was really cool, so i thought about ways to initiate more conversations with them, and ultimately i concluded that if i wanted to i could probably nudge them into becoming friends with me without them ever realizing i’d abused staff powers to do so. it wouldn’t have been particularly difficult, given a) my ability to plan events b) the closed nature of most summer programs means you can scheme without much unexpected interference. after thinking this through, i decided not to try it because it would be predatory to the student, but the fact that i’d even considered it means that, unfortunately, this kind of behavior probably happens all the time in relationships with power imbalances. (the ease at which these plans can be executed is also one of the justifications for the november rule, though the point i’m making here applies to plenty of non-romantic relationships as well)

fast-forward to a few weeks ago when, in several friendships with moderate age gaps (eg. high schooler x college student, college student x alum) that i’d thought were wholesome, the younger person in the friendship told me how their interactions were actually emotionally manipulative. hearing that made me pretty sad, because some relationships that i’d thought were really beautiful turned out to be toxic, and also because i was disappointed in myself for not having helped out and for never having noticed what was going on

it’s sad that the world isn’t safer. it’s sad that people possessing power and lacking self-awareness default to using said power to address their insecurities. it’s sad that when one of those insecurities happens to be loneliness, other people get ensnared in emotionally damaging ways

trust, i’ve decided, is really about power. as in, i can afford to engage with people that most people would stay away from because of various privileges (like being male, being in good/stable health, having friends that i can rely on during emergencies, etc.) and because of various skills (for instance, i generally have good social awareness, so i can usually distinguish good acting from bad acting). if i didn’t have those privileges or skills, my current lifestyle would probably be dangerous, but the fact that i do have them means that, for now at least, interacting with a broad spectrum of people seems to be worth the risks

and again, i wish the world wasn’t this way. i wish anyone could just go out and meet whoever they wanted to and know that the other person had their best interests in mind. then the concept of trust wouldn’t even be necessary because everyone would always be trustworthy. but that’s not the world we live in and it probably won’t be for a while, so in the meantime, i think one’s capacity to trust is intrinsically tied to privilege and power