The Importance of Trust

It’s getting much more difficult to discern truth from lies and yet we all make judgements about who to trust. Trust, it seems, is very important to us. Trust in the medical profession has remained relatively high; while politicians and journalists have always had difficulties garnering trust. Bankers and

financiers are a special case.

A banking think-in in the mid-1980s revealed that more and more customers could not be trusted to tell the truth on loan applications. This realisation forced a complete reversal of the long-established practice of the bank manager exercising discretion over decision-making. This resulted in centralised control and the demise of the once respected, and trusted, bank manager.   

People seem to reserve a unique perspective for money. They trust the doctor who decides taking away one kidney will result in a healthier future – but not the financial adviser who proposes a similar long-term result for their money. And yet both experts have an equal duty of care to their clients.

Onora O’Neill, an emeritus professor of philosophy, believes she understands the divergence; and it’s mostly circumstantial evidence around opinion polls and hearsay. Colloquially, people say they don’t trust banks but they continue to operate bank accounts. It’s more likely that people now have a healthy suspicion rather than a lack of trust.

And, of course, trust and duty are not exclusive to one party. Both parties to any deliberations must exhibit trust and both must honour their respective duties. Knowing, or certainly believing, that trust and duty are not present results in a culture of suspicion. Consumers who become suspicious of some expert advisers (and before tarring all with one brush) should check for three high-level attributes: honesty; integrity and competence.

In an effort to tackle dishonesty and incompetence, lawmakers and regulators have imposed rules on transparency and fitness to trade. Such regulation falls well short of what is needed. For example, transparency cannot be overcome by providing consumers with more and more information – they simply won’t read it or properly absorb it. Fitness to trade cannot be ensured by merely insisting on advisers attaining academic qualifications and knowledge top-ups.

Consumers have a duty to impose their own disciplines. They should insist on receiving expert advice face-to-face. It is very hard to measure honesty and integrity at a distance. Consumers should come prepared with tough probing questions in order to check the competence of the answers. Although regulators are, for the most part, trying to be supportive of consumers it is impossible to ensure positive consumer outcomes by imposing more rules on expert advisers.

Trust comes from reliability and truth. Where trust exists a fruitful relationship is assured. O’Neill, who has received numerous awards for a lifetime’s achievement in the fields of philosophy, reckons that trying to rebuild trust across society is not a clever idea. It’s much more rewarding to have more trust in the trustworthy. For consumers, identifying the trustworthy experts requires a couple of steps. Face-to-face meetings for one!

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