A 3-tiered model of trust, and how con men hack people.

Something I’ve observed in a variety of human organizations, including almost all businesses, is that the wrong people are making major decisions. I’m not talking about second-best players or even mediocrities becoming leaders; I’m talking about the rise of people who shouldn’t even be trusted with a bag of rock salt. White-collar social climbers with no more integrity than common con artists are the ones to rise through the ranks, while the most honest people (some deserving, most not) are the ones to stagnate or be pushed out. Why is this happening? It’s not that all successful and powerful people are bad. Some are; most aren’t. The problem is more subtle: it’s that the wrong people are trusted. Good people are probably slightly more likely to succeed than bad people at forming companies, but bad people rise through the ranks and take them over nonetheless. To understand why this happens, it’s important to understand trust, and why it is so easy for a class of people to earn trust they don’t deserve, and to retain that trust in spite of bad actions.

As I work my way through George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, I’m starting to get a sense of just how well this author understands human nature. Unlike many fantasy novels with clear heroes and cosmic villains, the moral topology of Martin’s world is approached from several dog’s eye views, without omniscient or prescriptive narration. It’s not clear who the heroes and villains are. Charming characters can be treacherous, while those hardest to love are the most interesting. Martin writes using limited third-person narration, but each chapter from a different character’s point of view. What is most interesting is how the perception of a character changes once his or her intentions are revealed. In a novel, you actually can understand the motivations of characters– even dangerous and disliked ones like Jaime Lannister and Theon Greyjoy. You can get the whole story. In real life, people only get their own.

Something emerges as I relate the moral questions posed by narrative to the murkier world of human interaction, and it’s why people (myself included) are generally so awful at judging character. I’ve come to the conclusion that, subconsciously, most of us model the questions of peoples’ trustworthiness with a three-tiered approach. The superficial tier is that person’s speech and social skill. What does he say? The middle tier is the person’s actions. What does he do? The deepest tier is that person’s intention. What does he want? For better or worse, our tendency to separate people into “good” and “evil” relies on our assessment of a person’s true intention, rather than that person’s action.

A person who does seemingly bad things for good purposes is a dark hero, like Severus Snape in the Harry Potter series. A person who does good things for bad intentions (consider the Manhattan charity scene, a theater for social climbing more than service) is a disliked phony. This attitude would make a lot of sense, if we could reliably read peoples’ intentions. We develop first-degree trust in a person if we find that person to be socially pleasant. At this level, we’d invite that person to a party, but not share our deepest secrets. We develop second-degree trust in people who do things we like, and who refrain from doing things we dislike. Most people would call a mutual relationship of second-degree trust a friendship, although friendship involves other axes than trust alone. Third-degree trust is reserved for people we believe have the best intentions: people who might commit actions we dislike (potentially having information we don’t) but who we believe will do the right thing.

If the exploit isn’t visible, I’ll spell it out cleanly. In the real world, one really never knows what another person’s intentions are. That’s pure guesswork. Unlike in fiction, we only know our own intentions, and sometimes not even that. We have a desperate desire to know others’ intentions, but we never will. The quality of evidence available to us, even for the most perceptive and socially skilled people, is poor. So, this admits a hack. What tends to happen when knowledge is impossible to have but people desperately want it? People come up with explanations, and those with the most pleasing ones profit. Many religious organizations and movements exist on this principle alone. That which is said in the right way can appear to betray intentions. In other words, a first-level interaction (what the person says) is dressed up as carrying third-degree knowledge (of intimate intention).

This is how con artists work, but it also explains the operation of white-collar social climbers and the shenanigans that corporations use, in the guise of corporate “culture” and “changing the world”, to encourage naive young people to work three times as hard as they need to, for half the reward. They create a ruse of transparency about their intentions, earning some measure of third-degree trust from the naive. What this allows them to do is be malevolent on the second degree (i.e. perform bad actions, including those harming the finances and careers of their victims) and have a surprising number of loyal acolytes (including victims) making excuses for this behavior.

Essentially, this is the first tier of interaction and trust (the superficial one) overriding the second (of actions) by masquerading as the third (of intentions). It’s an exploit that exists because people don’t want to admit to the true nature of the world they live in, which is one where another person’s intentions are almost always opaque. This doesn’t mean most people are “bad” (not true) or have “hidden agendas” (true but irrelevant, in that all “agendas” are equally hidden)– it’s just the structural nature of a world where minds are very difficult, and sometimes impossible, to read. People have a hard time accepting this limitation, especially because the most socially confident seem not to have it, even though all people do. They compensate by developing the notion that they can read others’ intentions, a foolish confidence in their own social skill.

Some people are easy to read. For example, infants usually cry because they’re cold, hot, hungry, thirsty, or in pain. Children are, likewise, often relatively easy to read. The least socially skilled third of adults are generally easy to understand, at least partially, in this way. Moreover, assessments of motivation are often made as a sort of social punishment for undesirable actions: it’s bad enough for this person to be caught, but the insult is the assessment of his motivation. It’s a paternalistic way of calling someone a child. I know what you’re up to. It’s an assertion of confidence that often has no basis, but it gives a certain class of people confidence in their paternalistic superiority. People with this attitude tend to grow in their foolish confidence as they become more successful and powerful, and to their detriment. As they rise, they need lackeys and lieutenants and advisors. They need to trust people; most of all, they need to believe they can trust peoples’ intentions. Of course, they’ve also been shaped by experience into a person with supreme confidence in their own ability to judge others’ character…

Enter the psychopath. Contrary to popular depiction, most psychopaths are not murderers, rapists, or torturers. The majority of them are not violent, and those with violent intentions are usually able to have others do their dirty work. Most eschew violence, which is dangerous, illegal, and almost never confers any benefit (financial or social) in modern times. They’d rather rob people than kill them– it’s easier, and the rewards are greater. Also, it’s an open question whether psychopathy is “mental illness”, but there is no connection between psychopathy and psychosis, the latter rarely being associated with mental effectiveness or social skill. Instead, psychopaths’ minds tend to be as clear as anyone else’s. What characterizes the psychopath is a lack of conscience and an infinitely deep selfishness. Also, most of them are exceptionally skilled actors. Although their emotional growth tends to be stunted in childhood or adolescence, they can mimic as wide a range of emotions as anyone else. In fact, they are superior to typical people at having the “right” emotions for various circumstances. Psychopaths have no tell-tale signs, and they don’t seem like “mean” people. They are effectively invisible. Among the upper management of most companies, they are surprisingly common, yet never detected until after they’ve done their damage.

Psychopaths could not be more at home than they are in the white-collar social climbing theater of the typical corporation. The outsized rewards for corporate officers feed their narcissism, the intrigues enable their cutthroat tendencies, and their superficial charm enables their effortless rise. They acquire (misplaced) trust quickly, on account of their unusually high skill at emotional mimicry. They are not supernatural, so they cannot read the intentions of those they intend to please. Instead, they dress their intentions in such a way that the people in power will read whatever they want to see. Like “psychics”, they hedge what they say with the purpose of being right by those in power on account of flexible interpretation. They seem to have “vision” and character because they can exploit the “just like me” fallacy of their superiors. In reality, they are the worst kind of mercenary turncoat. Their “vision” is of themselves on top of something, but that could be a mountain of gold or of bones. They don’t care, as long as they win and others lose.

After a psychopath has run his course, the company where he worked is usually damaged immensely. Million- or billion-dollar losses can occur, top executives can be jailed, and thousands of jobs can be cut. Psychopaths burn whatever is no longer useful to them. After this, people tend to back-reason their interactions with that person. “I knew he was up to something.” “I never liked him.” In most cases, that’s not accurate. What really happened is this: it was obvious that this person’s actions (second level) were risky, harmful, or even criminal, but the person was so effective at making it seem that he had the right intentions (third level) that people ignored the obvious warning signs. They made excuses. They misinterpreted the person’s superficial charm as a sign of good intentions, and they were burned. Or, perhaps this word is better: they were hacked.