Morgen Witzel, Exeter Business School, asks a pertinent question—can we trust the intelligence of a machine?
Trust is essential in business, as indeed it is in society as a whole. Without trust, we are unable to build relationships with each other; without relationships there can be no cooperation, no collaboration, no organization, no markets. Trust is everything; without trust, there is nothing.
What is the key ingredient of success for every great leader? Trust. People are willing to accept their commands and follow them. No one ever achieved greatness by driving unwilling followers towards a goal they did not believe in. What is the most important factor in every famous brand? Trust. We believe the promise this brand makes in terms of utility, quality, and safety.
Will the increasing use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) create more trust in organizations? Or will it hamper trust relationships? Will we ever truly trust artificial
brains–or the organizations that use them? Logic, based on both psychology and biology, suggests we will not. For organizations using or contemplating using AI—especially in customer-facing roles—this is a major challenge. While there is no doubt that it can be a potentially powerful tool, AI will have to be used with great care, if the trust of key stakeholders such as customers and employees is not to be forfeited.
the function of trust
Before addressing this issue, we should stop to consider what trust is and how it works. Simply defined, trust is the notion that other people will (a) do what we expect them to do, and (b) will not do anything which is not in our own interests. They will not attack us, or steal from us, or spread rumors behind our back; instead, they will be there for us when we need them.
In her book Trust in Modern Societies, Barbara Misztal argues that trust is an essential part of community building. We will only accept into our communities those whom we feel we can trust; we will seek to repel those we cannot trust. Why is this so? Misztal says that one key factor is the element of predictability. We trust people when we know how they will behave. To do that, we need to know what social norms and values they hold, what they consider to be right and wrong. If those values and norms are not congruent with our own, then we become uncertain; we cannot predict how these people will behave, so we fear them. (As an aside, it is this kind of uncertainty about other people’s norms and values and the fear this provokes that is behind much racist behavior, across the world, and is a major factor in the Islamophobia currently sweeping the West.)
Trust is essential in brand-building. Charles Babbage, better known as the pioneer of the computer, wrote of this in his book The Economy of Machinery and Manufactures when he described the thought process that goes through the consumer’s mind when buying simple commodities such as tea and salt. In former times, these were sold in bulk; a customer went into a shop and asked for a pound of tea, an assistant opened a bin and measured out a pound, wrapped it up, and sold it. The customer had no opportunity to inspect the goods, to tell what quality they might be or if they had been adulterated (which they frequently were). This meant uncertainty, which in turn led to lack of trust:
AI will have to be used with great care, if the trust of key stakeholders such as customers and employees is not to be forfeited.
trust and the brain
One of the most powerful neurotransmitters in the brain is oxytocin, a neuropeptide, sometimes also known as the ‘comfort hormone.’ Medical science has long known that gestures of affection and friendship release greater quantities of oxytocin in the brain. Tones of voice, physical gestures, kind or reassuring words, even something so simple as saying ‘thank you’ causes the brain to react in several ways. One is an increase in pleasure; these gestures make us feel happy. Another is an increased sense of security; when someone is nice to us, we feel safe. And finally, there is a sense of reciprocity; we are more likely to respond with similar gestures of our own.
More recent research has shown high levels of connection between oxytocin and trust. When other people behave in ways that indicate we can trust them, we experience more oxytocin release, and we become more ready to trust in turn. The opposite is also true. If we perceive that other people are behaving in ways we consider to be untrustworthy, less oxytocin is released. We become unhappy, insecure, and less likely to reciprocate; indeed, we are more likely to be ‘turned off ’ by these people and not willing to accept them into our affinity group. We may try to reject them or expel them.
There is of course an interrelationship between biology and psychology here. What we consider ‘trustworthy behavior’ depends very much on our knowledge of other people and their values. What might be normal in one culture can be different in another. Our decision about what is trustworthy behavior also depends on our knowledge of the other person as an individual. Are they really being erratic and unpredictable? Closer knowledge of them might indicate that they are simply eccentric, or have a few unusual personality traits that we can overlook.
In An Inquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, David Hume noted that we find it much easier to build trust, or ‘sympathy’ as he called it, with people who are close by us.
When other people behave in ways that indicate we can trust them, we experience more oxytocin release, and we become more ready to trust in turn.