We've lost faith in experts, but increasingly rely on strangers we meet online. Is it wise to replace long-evolved instincts at the click of a button?
THE first thing Paul Zak bought on eBay was a pair of ice skates. They came with a handwritten note: “I hope your daughter enjoys these as much as my daughter did.” It made Zak’s day.
As someone who studies the neurological basis of trust, Zak knew exactly what was going on. Feel-good chemicals had flooded his bloodstream, changing how he felt about a stranger over the internet. But that didn’t stop him leaving a shining review.
Human interactions are built on trust. We trust others to hand over the goods when we pay them. We trust banks with our money and doctors with our lives. We trust governments to run our countries and newspapers to tell us how they are doing it. The more trust in a society, the better it fares. Put another way: without trust, society would collapse.
But something strange is happening. Public trust in our institutions has plummeted in the past decade. Nearly half of people in the US mistrust lawmakers, according to a poll carried out in June. In the UK, fewer than 1 in 4 people trust the press. And yet we are putting more trust than ever before in people we meet on the internet. The sharing economy is booming. It is normal to invite strangers to sleep on our sofas, meet us for dates, pick us up in their cars and look after our pets. The internet has brought us to a tipping point, fundamentally changing who we trust and why. Technology allows us to make informed decisions and vet individuals.