Trust and White Privilege

The so-called “rental economy” (or sharing economy, or collaborative economy, or whatever you’d like to call it) is fundamentally about sharing resources.  People can now directly rent out their cars (Getaround), seats in their cars (Uberpool), clothes (Kanzee), and even rooms or apartments (AirBnB).

There are, of course, lots of models where a firm owns the resource being shared:  Hotels own rooms, Zipcar owns cars, Rent The Runway owns dresses.  But the examples I mentioned earlier are different, because individuals own the resource they are sharing.  Sharing involves risk:  If you share a designer bag with a stranger on the internet, you’ve got to believe it’ll come back in good shape.  If you use Uberpool to arrange a carpool with strangers, you want to make sure they’re not going to be axe murderers.  And, of course, if you rent out your condo on AirBnB, you want to be reasonably assured that it won’t be trashed by methheads.

So what’s the answer?  Trust, right?  On AirBnB, you get lots of information about the people you’re renting to.  You can see a picture of them, reviews from previous hosts, and even figure out if you have shared connections (perhaps you attended the same school, or have friends in common).  AirBnB advertises this to both hosts and guests:

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It’s not really like a friendly-looking picture or a shared college protects means that someone isn’t a thief or a methhead.  But it gives us the confidence to proceed with a bit of risk.  And, trust tends to pay off.  We trust someone based on relatively silly things like a picture or a connection to a friend of a friend, and 99% of the time, that trust pays off.  It allows us to cooperate and do things that are risky but mutually beneficial (like sharing a condo with a stranger!)

But here’s the problem with the rental economy:  It hinges on trust, and trust hinges on homophily.  We trust others who are like us.  We trust those whose faces are similar to our own.  And, we trust those who belong to the same racial group as us:

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So where does that lead?  It leads to Tressie McMillan Cottom‘s experience with AirBnB, shared today on Twitter:

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I don’t know whether AirBnB hosts use ethnic and racial similarity to guide their decisions whether to accept guests, but evidence from hiring and housing certainly suggests they will.  I would bet any amount of money that a randomized trial with Tressie’s photo versus a “stock photo of a white lady” would yield differences in reservation acceptance rates.

Given this concern, I would take away two points.  First, of course, it’s important to note that the “sharing economy”/”rental economy” has added a new item for white folks’ invisible knapsack of privilege:  “I never have to worry if my profile picture will lead AirBnB hosts to refuse my reservation.”

But the broader issue I see is this:  The real challenge for the social economy is to create means of building trust between dissimilar people.  For rental and sharing systems to not simply reinforce and deepen homophilic trust bonds, providers like AirBnB need to build systems that create intergroup trust and help sharers trust those who are not like them.  In some ways, the sharing economy could be a place where intergroup contact happens, and we know that contact reduces prejudice.  But if trust mechanisms in the sharing economy boil down to profile pictures and social network graphs, I think it’s fair to expect the sharing economy to reproduce and exacerbate racial segregation.

Does Commuting Reduce Political Participation?

Is your commute to work sapping your will to be a good citizen?

A new paper in American Politics Research (gated; ungated) by three researchers at the University of Connecticut suggests this could be the case.

They find that those with long commutes to work are less likely to participate in politics. Voting, contacting a government official or elected representative, campaigning, signing a petition, giving money to a political organization or volunteering for an organization or campaign — the longer your commute to work, the less likely you are to be an engaged citizen.

This isn’t only a matter of not having time, since hours spent at work doesn’t change participation.  And it’s not only a matter of living in a politically-apathetic ‘bedroom community’ or commuter-filled suburb, since commuting time still matters even when controlling for various community characteristics.

So why does commuting make us less politically active?  Drawing on ego-depletion research from psychology, the authors frame commuting as a “daily grind” of stressors that reduce the resources and energy needed to actively engage in politics.  Consistent with a resources perspective, the authors find that having income helps buffer the adverse effect of a long commute.

The paper does an admirable job, given a limited dataset, of trying to rule out the explanation that the apathetic opt for long commutes, rather than long commutes making us apathetic.  The jury is probably still out on causality here, but this paper flags an interesting and troubling dynamic:

“The findings from this article suggest that lower income commuters, while perhaps in high need of upping their level of interest advocacy… will be less likely to do so because their current situation has left them depleted of key resources needed for such action.”

Airbnb learns the hard way: Assurance erodes trust.

Airbnb is a service that allows people to open their homes to houseguests.  It’s turned couchsurfing into a high-growth business model that has hoteliers scrambling and investors looking forward to an IPO.

But there’s a challenge for Airbnb:  With people opening their doors to total strangers, how do you keep everyone safe?

A couple years ago, an Airbnb user had their house ransacked by thieves, while another found out the hard way that the guests renting their home were meth heads.

For Airbnb to scale up and succeed, they needed to make protect guests from unscrupulous hosts, and hosts from larcenous or destructive guests.

Things began well, with Airbnb extending a million-dollar insurance policy to its hosts.

And then they focused on building trust by linking Airbnb to social networks (Facebook, Linkedin) so that Airbnb accounts are linked to people’s real identities:

“Trust is the key to our community.  There is no place for anonymity in a trusted community. That’s why we’re dedicated to providing our users with the best decision-making tools possible…

We believe that the right technology can help lay the foundation for trust in other people.   Today, we are proud to introduce Airbnb Verified ID—the next step for trust at Airbnb.  Verified ID provides a connection between the online and offline spaces.”

Sounds good, right?

Except when “building trust” means asking for unnecessary assurance.

Doc Searls quotes an Airbnb member for whom the “next step for trust” meant feeling deeply distrusted:

“The new verification process is insane and insulting. I have used your service for two years. My “reality” has been verified by my hosts and my guests: people in four countries have left feedback about their experiences with me. We have talked on the phone. You have my social security number from when you sent me tax documents. You have my credit card on file. I’m happy to send you my drivers license, but don’t see why you would need it, when you already have the rest. There is just no way I’m linking up my facebook account so you can datamine my friends, keep an eye on my day to day activity, or examine my relationships. There are enough safety checks on me through the relationship we’ve already developed. Please reconsider this stupidity.”

This for me captures a main problem with so many of the approaches to online trust:   Trust is not assurance.  Trust is the expectation that you won’t have to use the million-dollar insurance policy, not the assurance that you’ll be protected if the guest is a thief.  When you ask for layers of assurance on a relationship that was already trusting, you risk backlash:  We’ve done business together!  Why do you suddenly need more ID from me?

If you don’t buy that assurance crowds out trust, try this experiment at home:  Approach your spouse and ask them to sign a post-nuptial agreement.  See how well the argument that you’re just “trying to build trust” goes for you.

One of the keys to maintaining trust is to rely on that trust.  When you replace trust with assurance (asking your long-trusted spouse for a contract you shouldn’t need; asking a long-trusted customer for identification that you shouldn’t need), you crowd out trust.  Airbnb seems to be learning this basic lesson the hard way.

Trust and a Hundred Million Doritos Tacos

This term, I asked my students on their exam to give me one strong argument about the benefits of trust and the costs of distrust.

Nobody mentioned the Doritos Loco Taco.

But the Doritos-shelled taco, that neon-orange fast-food abomination, offers a vivid example of the power of incomplete contracts and trust in allowing cooperation to occur.

Frito-Lay and Taco Bell collaborated for years in developing the technology that would ultimately produce this nacho-taco amalgam, and did so without formal contracting in place:

“While buzz for the DLT’s national launch was locked in, a deal between Taco Bell and Frito-Lay was not. As Taco Bell legend has it, though the companies had spent years working together on the DLT, no official contracts had ever been signed. Taco Bell’s 50th birthday was fast approaching when Greg Creed and then-Frito-Lay CEO Al Carey met in Creed’s office to hash out final details. “We both realized that if we let the lawyers get involved, this thing would get slowed down and bogged down. So we did a handshake deal–that’s all we had: You’re going to spend the money, and I’m going to spend the money [on the DLT],” Creed recalls. “Everyone was like, ‘You can’t launch without a contract.’ And we were like, ‘Just watch us.'”

The upshot of this approach?

“When we met in my office [before launch], we said that if either one of us gets sacked or promoted, we would actually have to write a contract,” Creed recalls. “When [then-Frito-Lay CEO] Al [Carey] got promoted to run the PepsiCo beverage business, I phoned him up and said, ‘So I guess we better write that contract then.’ Well guess what? We sold 100 million tacos in the first 70 days. If we waited for those contracts to be finished, we would’ve sold 100 million less.”

 

So, when someone next asks you:  What’s responsible for America’s obesity epidemic?  You can now confidently answer:  Incomplete contracts and trust.

Cutting out the Publishers?

“Imagine this thought experiment:

The entire editorial board of Journal X decides to quit and start a new open-source journal. Any expenses of that new journal could be funded by a university. Overnight, the new journal would BE, for all practical purposes, the exact same journal (with a new name) – at least in terms of what we should primarily care about, which is the quality of the research. Would it be that expensive to get such a new journal listed so that it appears on Google Scholar? Where are all these valuable marketing costs that supposedly exist? Seth Spain pointed out that this thought experiment actually happened in mathematics. The board of the journal Topology resigned and founded the Journal of Topology.”

– Marc Anderson on the OB-list, mulling over alternatives to  OBHDP’s $1,800 fee to make a paper open-access.

I would love to see OBHDP and other outlets reinvent themselves as online open journals, keeping the same ed board, AEs, reviewers, standards, publication schedule, etc., and simply cutting Sage, Elsevier and the other publishing giants out entirely.

I suspect that one of the biggest resources such rebellions would require is a simple, open-source, free to use piece of web software to duplicate the functions of ManuscriptCentral:  Submitting papers, assigning them to AEs and reviewers, tracking reviews, sending out decisions, submitting R&Rs, etc.

It would be great to see a large capacity-building grant (from CFI here in Canada, for instance, or the US NSF’s academic research infrastructure program) to build the basic submission-management and publishing tools necessary for journals’ boards to free themselves from publishers.

I can’t imagine a more profoundly and positively disruptive project for academic research than a piece of ‘journal-in-a-box’ software that would allow societies to escape their publishers and cheaply and easily take their existing journals open-access.

Update:  Spoke too soon!   There’s an OS journal workflow management tool already available (thanks, @mekki and @TIMReview).  It’s called OJS, Open Journal Systems.  Maybe there are tech issues inhibiting uptake (Journal of Management and Organization used OJS, but then returned to ManuscriptCentral), but I think the availability of this software probably undermines my technological-barriers argument about why ed boards don’t rise up and overthrow their publishers.  Next guess, anyone?

Recent Developments: Where Do Trust and Trustworthy Behaviour Come From?

A roundup of some interesting recent findings about the predictors and roots of trust and trustworthy behaviour:

  • Moral judgment.  Those who make moral judgments behave in more trustworthy ways, and are more likely to expect trustworthy behaviour from others.
  • Age.  We become trustors sometime between kindergarden and elementary school, research suggests — possibly because older children become more aware of the possibility of reciprocity that makes trust pay off.
  • Lower testosterone.  That big hairy fella with the rugged jawline?  Probably not as trusting.  People with higher testosterone tend to be higher in “indiscriminate social suspicion“.
  • Racial integration.  People from areas with greater racial integration tend to be less distrusting than those who live in racially-segregated cities, some US data suggest.  Score another point for the contact hypothesis.

Do Markets Make Us Trust Less… Or More?

In a famous experiment I’ve mentioned here before, you get different results when an economic game is titled the ‘Community Game’, versus the ‘Wall Street Game’.  Despite the exact same rules, structure, and payoffs, the frame changes the game:  Wall Street players cooperate less than Community Game players.

But, Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution points out some recent results that suggest that it may be Wall Street in particular that is triggering suspicion, not markets in general.  The study described over at MR primed markets in a different way, getting participants to rearrange sentences that had words related to markets, commerce and trade:  “Paid”, “commercial”, “shop”, etc.  (A control group of participants rearranged similar sentences with different, non-market words).

What they found was that priming markets increased players’ trusting behaviour in an economic trust game.  It’s hard to know from their results whether this is really trust, or simply willingness to take on risk.  Perhaps both market-primed and non-market-primed players are equally suspicious of their partner in the game, but market-primed players are more willing to gamble.

Though more work probably remains, it’s an interesting result, and suggest to me that it’s worth thinking carefully about the distinction between markets and business when we think of economic influences on trust.

 

Edit:  Via Thomas Zeitzoff, another interesting related paper in Science:   In behavioural games, players in societies with well-developed markets (operationalized in terms of how much of your food is purchased rather than grown yourself) tend to play with greater concern for fairness.