How do high-trust societies form?

post by Shankar Sivarajan (shankar-sivarajan) · 2024-02-09T01:11:24.201Z · LW · GW · 12 comments

This is a question post.


    2 StartAtTheEnd
    2 rickjaxjames

First, it's clear to me they're not just myths bolstered by propaganda, and they really are qualitatively different from their low-trust counterparts, which I understand, and consider to be "natural," requiring no explanation.

I think it's a different concept than the WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) thing, though of course, there's a lot of overlap.

A related question: how do they unravel, and can this be arrested?


answer by StartAtTheEnd · 2024-02-15T16:05:34.862Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's obviously different from WEIRD. Japan is also high-trust, as is Thailand. A lot of poor and "backwards" countries actually have many lovely people despite lacking the western values that some people would argue are necessary for good behaviour.

I think high-trust is the default, and that it's broken by influxes of people who think or value differently. This causes a breakdown of the default dominant strategy, one cannot afford to trust one-another. We also tend to invest in our own environment, for when we improve things around us, we also improve things for ourselves. But what about people who move around a lot?

For trust to break down, you need quite a lot of people. In smaller socities, especially ones where people have lived for many years, everyone can be held accountable for their actions, and you can't do anything without curious old ladies gossiping to eachother about it.

Imagine that you have new people visiting every day. Your cultural values doesn't mean anything to these people. These people will likely never see you again, so they don't need to worry about making a good impression. The population density is high, or at least the arrival and departure of people is way past Dunbar's number, so your good deeds are unlikely to be remembered and paid back in the future. These people can move around as they please, so they can profit from the exploitation of your environment without hurting themselves. Said a little vulgarly, people tend to not "shit where they eat".

Now, allow me to be a little blunt: This is not a difficult topic. There's a small set of obvious answers that you won't hear often solely because of a social pressure leading to self-censorship. Mixing vastly different cultures is a stupid idea, and it's no wonder that difficulties have resulted from doing so. This is trivially true, a majority of people just don't allow themselves to think of this conclusion. In connection to this, I want the reader to cognize the difference between good-faith pro-social behaviour, and conformity due to fear.

comment by Shankar Sivarajan (shankar-sivarajan) · 2024-02-15T18:03:34.410Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There's a small set of obvious answers

Yes, I know them, but are they correct answers? Racial purity, eradication of religious heresy, extermination of sexual degenerates, well-defined and immutable social hierarchy, strict enforcement of female submission, dietary/drug requirements and prohibitions, are all classics, but I'm unsure they actually work.

Replies from: StartAtTheEnd
comment by StartAtTheEnd · 2024-02-15T18:37:35.905Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Whatever the solution is, it's rather clear that fighting these factors have gotten us further away from it. Lots of people are trying to "improve society", but it's only getting worse. And when they double-down, thinking that they just didn't go far enough, society gets worse even faster. These people are often utterly incompetent, even though some of them are clearly acting in good faith.

You don't need racial purity, you just need competent people with a shared culture. You don't need to eradicate heresy, just people who oppose the norms and values which currently work. You do need a hierarchy, no question about that, but position should correlate strongly with competence, and you need to keep corruption at bay somehow. And degeneracy is a symptom of bad mental health and a lack of self-control, the type of indulgence is less important. The more self-control/discipline a person has, the more freedom you can allow them before they destroy themselves.

I wouldn't call it "female submission", just different gender roles. And since women are more emotional on average, they're much easier for politicians to manipulate. They tend towards the changes which sound the most appealing, rather than those with the biggest possibility of actually working. You have to take genetics into account, you can't change human nature by changing society.

Human history is long. We have seen what works. The trick is finding something which works and in which people are happy and healthy. Keep in mind that I'm not advocating for people having "good lives" by whatever objective metrics you can think of, that doesn't work. We should create lives in which those living said lives enjoy themselves. Comparison, and having too many choices, are both terrible for human health, for this reason modern dating apps are terrible.

It's very possible that companies earn money by creating a need in the population, and that people signal much better lives than they actually have (buying things they can't afford, only posting good news on social media, etc) which results in a population in which everyone feels inadequate/inferior, making them desperate enough to turn egoistic/selfish.

I do agree that there's many possible factors, but I'd also encourage people to focus on the psychological side of things. Too many people try to change the world because they refuse to change themselves, and the most vocal of the bunch tend to be mentally ill.

Edit: Finally, we're fighting against odds which have never existed before, like the current population density. I think it's better to have many, smaller communities than few, large ones, for many many reasons. But this is less profitable, so globalism is the future.

answer by rickjaxjames · 2024-02-14T12:33:32.062Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Japan should really be considered as a major focus of this discussion because it functions as a control for WEIRD effects. 

The encoding of social emotions, like shame,sensitivitywon't seems very important as well. You need to have genuine emotional sensitive to the judgment and feelings of others, if you don't those mechanisms wont work. Japan is supremely brutal in its subtle social judgments. 

As I have traveled I noticed a significant correlation with low functioning low trust societies and not caring what others think or at least not paying attention to the needs of others unless they are actively voiced. 

There may be a correlation between such emotions and suicide as well. 

comment by ChristianKl · 2024-02-15T18:02:05.551Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Japan has a high-trust culture but China has a low-trust culture. From what I know Chinese do care about what other people think. 


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comment by Viliam · 2024-02-09T10:12:44.973Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Just speculating here, but if you want to enforce any norms, there must be a way to get rid of the people who refuse to follow them. The question is how, and this depends on the kind of the group.

If the group is something like "people coming to a party I organize", the solution is simply to stop inviting the transgressors. If the group is more like "people living in this village", then you have a problem, because to achieve the same outcome, you would need to exile or kill the transgressors. Which was probably a smaller problem in the past -- if everyone agreed that someone deserves to die, such person simply disappeared one day and no one bothered to investigate how. It is more of a problem today, when the government does not care to protect you efficiently, but suddenly starts paying attention when you take action to protect yourself (because doing so obviously undermines the government's pretext at legitimacy). When the government cares, it can kill people, or "exile" them by putting them in prison.

Okay, I used some harsh words in the previous paragraph. Is "killing (or exiling)" really necessary? Wouldn't a smaller punishment -- such as a fine, or maybe just a concerned frown -- suffice?

I think the answer is: yes it would suffice for most people, but no it wouldn't for some; and you need a clear answer to what happens to those, otherwise your high-trust society still falls apart. If 99% of the population follow the rules but 1% does not, the streets are still littered, homes get broken into, people get raped and murdered. Some people are such that you could fine them out of all the money they have, and they still would keep breaking the rules. So what is the next step here? A civilized solution could be to let them spend their lives in prison. A less civilized solution is to kill them, either officially or unofficially.

So, how do high-trust societies form? At some moment in history, people agree on the rules, and start violently enforcing them. It may be controversial when it happens, but a generation or two later, the rules are simply "how we always do it here". The initial impulse probably comes from a religion or a king (or even from the people, in Switzerland).

How do high-trust societies unravel? When people stop enforcing the rules, for example because the official enforcers of the rules have a conflict of interest, because doing their job properly puts them in bad light somehow (e.g. they get accused of intolerance towards the groups that often break the rules). This naively sounds like diversity is the problem, but the actual problem is when appeasing the diverse groups becomes more important than enforcing the rules. (Singapore is high-trust and diverse.)

Again, this all is just speculation. Historical examples could be very useful, to either support or disprove this.

Replies from: SaidAchmiz, meedstrom, StartAtTheEnd
comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2024-02-15T14:59:16.301Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Just speculating here, but if you want to enforce any norms, there must be a way to get rid of the people who refuse to follow them.

(a.k.a. selective methods [LW · GW])

comment by meedstrom · 2024-02-13T21:43:30.286Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm no historian, but I cannot fit your exiling/killing theory to any recent society I know of.

I know the most about Sweden, so I'll discuss that society. Thinking about Sweden made several things obvious:

  1. First, an alternative mechanism with similar effect as exiling/killing: simply making the next generation better, and watching the stats improve over time.
  2. It's not just a question of good norms or correct education, as if these could develop in any direction independent of the government and system in general. Sweden underwent a transformation over many decades of social democracy (1930-1980), and it seems widely accepted now that crime rates went way down because society provided for every last member. Crime is habit-forming, and if no one ever needs to get into the habit, then you get your high-trust society. In fact, I'll add the hypothesis that you don't even need high education nor attempt to directly influence culture.
Replies from: Viliam
comment by Viliam · 2024-02-14T09:26:42.735Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Removing poverty helps a lot.

But some people are born as psychopaths and no amount of social democracy can change that. What happens to those in Sweden? I assume it's prison if they do something bad, just like at most places.

There are also other mechanisms for making the next generation better, for example forced sterilization.

...perhaps it works best when you do all of this, because different people become criminals for different reasons? Some people are driven to crime by desperate circumstances; some people have low self-control and would also commit crime in Utopia.

Replies from: meedstrom
comment by meedstrom · 2024-02-14T10:14:22.478Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What is the goal? Why do you need to do more than what has already been sufficient to create high-trust societies?

Replies from: Viliam
comment by Viliam · 2024-02-15T10:02:42.450Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Even if something is good, it can be further improved. The question is how, and what is the cost.

There are places where people do not lock their doors. There are places where people leave their bicycles without a lock, and they find them there on their way home. Perhaps we could do even better.

We could do better quantitatively: maybe you trust your neighbors to leave your bike alone, but you wouldn't trust them to leave your purse alone... but it is possible to imagine a society where if someone forgets a banknote in a park, someone will post a message on facebook "hey neighbors, someone forgot some money in the park, if you know who it was please tell them" and the money would stay there until the owner takes it.

We could do better qualitatively: maybe you consider your streets safe enough that no one would hurt you or steal from you... but perhaps you could similarly feel sure that no one will ever hurt you emotionally, or that no business would even take advantage of the information asymmetry.

Finally, high-trust societies can break down, so it is important to understand what keeps them running.

Replies from: StartAtTheEnd
comment by StartAtTheEnd · 2024-02-15T16:57:26.063Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I advice you to be careful with that line of thinking. It may backfire.

I noticed that racism was slowly disappearing precisely until the western world made racism out to be a terrible, terrible crime.

I find that it's precisely the societies with moral policemen telling eachother to be better people which are the least moral.

That it's the communities with the most rules which tend to be the least tolerant, especially when there's multiple rules telling people to be tolerant "or else".

That it's the best and kindest people in the world that hates rules, hates being told what to do, hates telling other people what to do. It's precisely the non-conformists who are the most tolerant and the most open to diversity, and they generally don't like bullying/witch hunting/cancelling people. (That said, it's possible that this type of person is rare, and that the difference is mostly genetic)

You need to arrive at good communities organically, or at least without the use of force. You cannot possibly design a good system and implement it in reality. A community has to regulate itself as it grows, if you try to control it, you will likely make it worse. Tyrannical means can only mask problems, they can't remove them.

If you want an explanation for the above observations, it's likely this: The groups which take things less seriously are less judgmental, less afraid, less cruel and less worried.

Replies from: Viliam
comment by Viliam · 2024-02-16T15:28:58.176Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I noticed that racism was slowly disappearing precisely until the western world made racism out to be a terrible, terrible crime.

I thought the backlash started when some people turned "anti-racism" into "anti-white racism". Telling people to be "colorblind" didn't have this effect, IMHO. Telling them that "colorblindness" is just another form of racism, did.

Possibly just my opinion; I didn't make a survey, and I am not sure whether people would report truthfully. But from my perspective, if you tell me "if you treat everyone fairly, that's all we expect from you", I am on the board. And if you tell me "you are white, therefore guilty", you have lost me.

I agree that rules often come with a large cost.

Replies from: StartAtTheEnd
comment by StartAtTheEnd · 2024-02-17T02:01:53.366Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That did happen, and at the same time, the ideal of equality was replaced with that of equity. So instead of making things fair and unbiased, people started promoting the opposite kind of unfairness and bias, in order to balance the two. But the psychological driving force behind this tendency is that of revenge. They will go past the balance point if they can, likely saying something along the lines of "Now it's your turn, it's only fair". I wonder if equality or equity will win in the future, they seem mutually exclusive.

I'm also on the side of equality/fairness/neutrality, but I think we're in the minority on that.

In any case, if one takes something seriously enough that they start to fear it, I think all rational thought goes out the window. I've seen the same thing happen with drugs, sexual topics, and mental health, leading to ridiculous myths on all topics. The majority of these myths and flawed understandings only went away 10-20 years ago, before that, the average persons take on them was a complete joke. I think the same goes for a range of different topics today 

comment by StartAtTheEnd · 2024-02-15T16:38:37.200Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think violent enforcement is required. But it's at the very least "strict". But this strictness seems to be parents educating their children. Adults living in a village will need eachother, and quickly recognize the value of befriending and helping eachother. If you've lived there 2 or 3 generations, then there's no malicious actions with a positive expected utility available to you.

These factors decrease when the younger generation starts moving to big cities looking for jobs. There's simply too many people there. Besides the places that you go frequently, you will experience that most people are strangers.

Diversity is a problem when the diversity conflicts with the rules. It doesn't matter if you believe in God or Karma as long as the outcome is that you don't steal where theft is illegal. And if you go to a community which is both high-trust and diverse, you should (according to my intuition) find that everyone has lived there for many years already, long enough to come to an understanding and agreement.

Finally, rules are like police. They help enforce the norms of said society, but they're also a symptom that enforcement is needed. It's not the places with the most rules and police which are the safest, nor is it necessarily the ones with the least. When you arrive at a place where rules and police are rarely needed - that's when you know that you've found a good community!

comment by Myron Hedderson (myron-hedderson) · 2024-02-09T03:14:39.111Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm unclear why you consider low-trust societies to be natural and require no explanation. To me it makes intuitive sense that small high-trust groups would form naturally at times, and sometimes those groups would, by virtue of cooperation being an advantage, grow over time to be big and successful enough to be classed as "societies".

I picture a high trust situation like a functional family unit or small village where everyone knows everyone, to start. A village a few kilometers away is low trust. Over time, both groups grow, but there's less murdering and thievery and expense spent on various forms of protection against adversarial behaviour in the high-trust group, so they grow faster. Eventually the two villages interact, and some members of the low-trust group defect against their neighbours and help the outsiders to gain some advantage for themselves, while the high trust group operates with a unified goal, such that even if they were similarly sized, the high trust group would be more effective. Net result, the high trust group wins and expands, the low trust group shrinks or is exterminated. More generally, I think in a lot of different forms of competition, the high trust group is going to win because they can coordinate better. So all that is needed is for a high-trust seed to exist in a small functional group, and it may grow to arbitrary size (provided mechanisms for detecting and punishing defectors and free-riders, of course).

I don't claim that this is a well-grounded explanation with the backing of any anthropological research, which is why I'm putting it as a comment rather than an answer. But I do know that children often grow up assuming that whatever environment they grew up in is typical for everyone everywhere. So if a child grows up in a functional family that cooperates with and supports each other, they're going to generalize that and expect others outside of their family to cooperate and support each other was well, unless and until they learn this isn't always the case. This becomes the basis for forming high-trust cooperative relationships with non-kin, where the opportunity exists. Seems to me a high trust society is just one where those small seeds of cooperation have grown to a group of societal size. 

Taking it back a step, it seems like we have a lot of instincts that aid us in cooperating with each other. Probably because those with those instincts did better than those without, because a human by itself is puny and weak and can only look in one direction at once and sometimes needs to sleep, but ten humans working together are not subject to those same constraints. And it is those cooperative instincts, like reciprocity, valuing fairness, punishment of defectors, and rewarding generosity with status, which help us easily form trusting cooperative relationships ("easily" relative to how hard it would be if we were fully selfish agents aiming only to maximize some utility function in each interaction, and we further knew that this was true of everyone we interacted with as well), which in turn are the basis for trust within larger-scale groups.

I mean, you're asking this question with the well-founded hope that someone is going to take their own time to give you a good answer, without them being paid to do so or any credible promise of another form of reward. You would be surprised, I think, if the response to this request was an attempt to harm you in order to gain some advantage at your expense. If 10 people with a similar dispositon were trapped on an island for a few generations, you could start a high trust society, could you not?

comment by Dagon · 2024-02-09T07:26:23.219Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Speculation only!

it seems that high-trust groups are those that have somewhat homogeneous culture, and strong extended-family and local ties.  In other words, a lot of social enforcement of norms, with less legible codified behavioral limits.  

There can be people who are simultaneously members of high-trust groups and communities, AND low-trust societies and groups.  

The important related question, as you say, can this be arrested or mitigated as a group gets larger and more diverse, so social/cultural norm enforcement via "what will grandma think?" becomes infeasible.