Borrowed Trust: who’s your lender?

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Borrowed Trust: who’s your lender?

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 (or When did I lose my ability to decide where to eat without the whole planet’s input?)

As you navigate through this age of overloaded information, you’ll find that, by necessity, you will have to take shortcuts when it comes time to making decisions.  If you use Yelp, Amazon, EBay, or any other service that features reviews given by people “just like you” then you probably have taken one of those shortcuts.  You know what I’m talking about, ’cause just like me you’ve thought:

“I’ve never heard of The Steaming Burrito, but 92% of the reviewers say it’s the best, and so I shall dine there tonight!”*

For me, and maybe some of you, it’s become an addiction. Maybe addiction isn’t the right word.  More like it has become so deeply integrated into my process that I won’t eat it, buy it, watch it, or hire it unless I can find something online that tells me it’s OK.  Anonymous validation that if I want a steaming burrito, it’s gonna be good (and not overstuffed).

Crowd sourced information can help us make better decisions

If you are from the “When I was young our video games had 8-bits, one d-pad, and two buttons and we grateful to have it because our parents’ video games were rocks!” generation you’ll remember a time when you talked to actual people to get an opinion on a purchase, new restaurant,  or movie.  Well some of us did that, some of us who aren’t so good with the talking just found one thing we liked and stuck with it.

But even the most outgoing, know-everyone individual still had a limited pool of knowledge to draw from.  We made lots of bad purchasing decisions.  Case in point:

While people have been pondering the concept of the “Wisdom of the Crowd” for a long time (we’re talking more than 2000 years ago when Aristotle wrote about it), there hasn’t been a way for an individual to have near instantaneous access to the thoughts and opinions of huge amounts of people until fairly recently in human history.

Lior Zoref, showed us what can happen if we take the idea of crowd sourced thinking to the extreme back in 2012 when he gave the first ever crowdsourced TED talk. He recreated a classic example of guessing the weight of an OX by bringing a live ox on stage, the results are impressive.

So that settles it right?  Evidence says turning to the crowd to make decisions is a good idea. I like good ideas. I like not having to expend mental energy on figuring out if I should spend my money on the latest mediocre remake of a mediocre movie from a time when I thought giant, sarcastic turtles that know karate were a good idea.

But…(and this time I’m not gonna flip it)

When we use online opinions we are borrowing anonymous trust

One of the benefits of the good ol’ days…or maybe just ol’ days, is that when we went and asked for an opinion from someone, we also had an existing relationship of trust with that individual.  We wouldn’t have asked them in the first place if we didn’t put some weight into the validity of their response.  That’s not to say, we don’t still ask our friends for advice, but that in many cases we have taken something that used to have an initial barrier of “Do I trust what this person will tell me?” and turned it into “Since lots of people have an opinion on this, it is equally (or more) valid than that of someone I know.”

We choose to seek out someone (anyone!) who already has built a trust with whomever we want to deal with so that we can minimize our risk. Once we find them, we can borrow their trust until we have some of our own.  The more people we borrow from, the more confident we are that we have made a correct decision. And thanks to group feedback systems, there are now efficient means of borrowing huge amounts of trust:

5247 people gave it 5 stars, it must be good!

It’s crazy if you think about it, in less than a generation we went from depending on the voice of a trusted few, to the voice of thousands of random people to help us with our decision making process. There’s just a slight problem with that:

Anonymous trust can be purchased, faked and manipulated

In our efforts to make efficient decisions, we’ve inadvertently made the online review such a valuable commodity that it’s now become subject to Campbell’s law/Goodhart’s law.  The gist of these laws/rules say that the more important a measure becomes, the more susceptible to corruption it becomes and that once a measure of something becomes a target/goal, it no longer is a good measure.

For example, on Yelp you have a restaurant and you know that 5 star restaurants get way more business than three star ones.  You need to boost that rating and so you “bribe” your patrons by giving a 10% off coupon when they post a 5 star review.  You took what was a good idea, providing people with a means of judging quality, and corrupted it by buying good reviews in order to draw in even more customers. As an aside I need to mention that, Yelp is doing all they can to fight these purchased and faked reviews.

And that brings me to what prompted this post.  Back when we were working on our (unfortunately failed) Kickstarter campaign, we were contacted by people offering to sell us likes on Twitter and Facebook.  There were places that would take our money to pledge it right back to our campaign in order to make it look like we had more real supporters.

We could buy fake trust and lend it out to all those people who needed to borrow some in order to trust what we were doing.  Being the naive not-so-little Aspie that I am, it made no sense to me until I started looking into the value of borrowed trust.  It turns out cheating the system is a huge thing.

You can go to fiverr.com and find thousands of people willing to sell you a review, but if you are thinking you could make a quick buck this way, you might get sued. And if you are a merchant buying fake reviews- Amazon’s already sued thousands of its own vendors so you could be next.

So what are we as intelligent (you are still reading this post that has gone waaaaay long, so you clearly are smart) individuals supposed to do? I did the search for you and found a piece of advice that I really liked on a page from some attorneysthat will get fake bad reviews removed for you:

Trust the 3 star review

That’s something I never thought about. I normally jump to the 5 stars and then the 1 stars and ignore pretty much everything else.  Logical to me- see what the best and worst of something is.  But something in that article stuck with me:“Nobody leaves a fake three star review.”

So for me, I’m going to change how I borrow trust.  I will start by looking at the 3s; taking the time to read the comments.   People who post 3 star reviews seem to point out both the good and the bad of whatever it is they are reviewing. There’s no rabid fan loyalty and no agenda. I’m certainly not saying don’t trust places with 5 star reviews, and definitely not saying choose the mediocre 3 star somethings.

Give loyalty to the services that are the best out there.  Just be smart about the unknown.  The trust you are borrowing may not be real.  If honesty is what you value you most in your trust lender, then right there in the middle with the 3s are a great place to start.

*Ok, so I made up “The Steaming Burrito” but you know what I mean.


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