Game Theory and Trust

Besides the beginning of the Great Fast, my time these last two weeks have been has been taken up preparing for several presentations I’ll be making between now and the beginning of April.

Currently, I am finishing the research for a two part online seminar on parish leadership (a webinar). In addition to reviewing the psychological literature on leadership, I’ve had the chance to look at some VERY introductory material in game theory (Rock, Paper, Scissors: Game Theory in Everyday Life, by Len Fisher and Game Theory: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions), by Ken Binmore)

Game theory?” you ask, “what is game theory?”

Glad you asked. I’ll tell you.

Game theory, according to the Wikipedia (that online repository of everything) article on the subject, is a branch of applied mathematics that “attempts to mathematically capture behavior in strategic situations, in which an individual’s success in making choices depends on the choices of others.” In addition to its application in the social sciences (especially economics), the theory and insights of game theory have be applied to disciples as diverse as “biology, engineering, political science, international relations, computer science (mainly for artificial intelligence), and philosophy.”

While there’s a great in game theory that I find interest—and useful—one of the things that has caught my attention as a I prepare for my parish leadership seminar is what game theory says about fostering trust in interpersonal relationship.

When trust is lost, when I offend or hurt you, if I’m a descent person, my natural inclination is to apologize and try and win back your trust. While the first half of my response—the apology—is a good thing, my second step, my attempt to win your trust, is (assuming I’ve understood what I’ve read) is likely to have a result opposite that for which I hope (that you trust me). So the question now becomes why? Why do I so often fail when I try and win back your trust?

Game theory is concerned with “strategic situations.” In somewhat simplistic terms, strategy is about acting to achieve a particular goal. A strategic situation is one in which the participants are each trying to accomplish a goal relative to each other. They might, for example, be in competition with each other, or they might cooperate with each other. The riding on a seesaw is an example of the later, game of chess is an example of the former.

“But what about restoring trust Father Gregory?! How do I do that?” I’ll tell you.

The best way to foster trust or cooperation, or so some game theorists argue, is not to ask for it, but to offer it. That’s why apologizing when I’ve caused you harm is a good thing and often brings a good response from you. And it is also why asking (or trying) to win your trust often fails. Let me explain.

When I, or anyone for that matter, apologizes I’m making myself vulnerable to you. My vulnerability, my willingness to be rejected or in some way hurt by you, demonstrates my trust in you to treat me with respect and to not take advantage of me. When, however, I follow my apology up with the request, “How can I earn your trust back,” I am asking you to be vulnerable to me—to let your guard down by asking you to reveal to me (a self-acknowledge untrustworthy person) the ways in which I can hurt you.

Let me try and explain this a bit better.

My wife and I have begun house hunting in anticipation of our upcoming move to Madison, WI. Like most home buyers, we will apply for a mortgage to help us purchase our new house. Now in addition to a credit check (i.e., our character in financial matters) and a check on our income (i.e., how much money we’ve got), the bank will also require from us two things: a deposit on the house (that is, that we pay them a percentage of the house’s cost) and collateral (in our case, the house itself).

Why does bank wants a deposit and collateral from borrows? The deposit isn’t to lower the amount that they will borrow; nor is putting the house up as collateral meant to give the bank something to sell if the borrowers default on the loan. It is rather to raise the cost for the borrowers of their defaulting on the loan. In effect, the bank is willing to trust us (or any borrowers) only to the degree that we have something to lose if we fail to repay the loan.

Trust is won by my willingness to suffer loss if I am untrustworthy in our relationship. If dishonesty or untrustworthy behavior doesn’t cost me anything, you are unwise to trust me.

At first this might sound a harsh and judgmental standard—it certainly did to me. But as I thought about it, I began to ask, what is it that I mean by trust? Is it simply a warm feeling or is it my ability to predict your future behavior? While forgiveness need not be mutual, trust must be. Trust requires that we walk together as it were. It isn’t necessarily bad or sinful if we don’t walk together—but if we don’t walk together our relationship is not trustworthy for the simple reason that we aren’t together on this or that issue.

What has all this to do with pastoral leadership?

I think were often pastors go wrong is that we are not clear as to the cost of failure to us if we fail in a pastoral relationship. Or maybe it is more accurate to say, the cost we bear for failure is not relevant to those we fail. Often clergy and laity deal in rather different “currency” from each other. Most priests I know that failure very personally, but this deep, personal sense of failure while sincere, is often not seen (or necessarily valued) by those that we fail.

I will, in my next post, come back to what might be a more meaningful pledge by clergy to those we serve. I suspect that much of the tension we see in the Church today reflects the fact that we do not have a shared standard of valuing the cost of behavior (whether perpetrated by clergy or lay leaders) that violates the bond of trust that holds us together.

Until then, your comments, questions and criticisms are not only welcome, but actively sought.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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