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Trust, but Verify


Suppose you decide to trust your neighbor and help her clear her driveway after a big snowstorm, with the understanding that when you are done she will help you clear yours.  Let’s say she reciprocates.  As a result of your trust in her, you’ve learned that she is trustworthy and for that reason you may engage in more frequent or more involved cooperative acts, such as picking up each other’s children from school or building and maintaining a common play area.

If she doesn’t reciprocate, well, you’ve learned that she’s perhaps not so trustworthy, and so in the future you will be careful in dealings with her.

Now, suppose you decide from the beginning not to trust her, so you don’t help her and she doesn’t help you.  What will you learn?  Nothing.  As a result, you will gain neither the valuable relationship that comes with trusting in reciprocity nor the knowledge that your neighbor may not be worthy of your trust.  Failure hurts, but taking that risk has its rewards.

This is the summary example from a brief essay at The Freeman.

It calls to my mind the much-mocked talk by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld about “known unknowns”. We can investigate where we are ignorant or unsure. But we can’t act upon what we are not aware of. And the surprise of learning that there was something we should have been aware of is often costly.

The unknown unknown is the most unsettling threat. In hindsight, it may not be the greatest threat. But anxiety feeds on mystery.

As agents in control of our own destiny, we must relentlessly seek to know more. Not just where our ignorance lies, but also where we did not even realize we were blind.

To find those blind spots, we must explore and experiment. And trust. With eyes open.

Our trust may be rewarded with a previously-unseen benefit. Or we may find pain. Either way, our anxiety will have fewer unknown unknowns upon which to feed.