Birds of a Feather Mistrust Together

Alignment, group dynamics, drifting intentions, and the Promise Theory of Trust

Mark Burgess

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Whether we’re talking about the animal kingdom, human collaborations, teamwork, or just choosy people, it’s a common narrative: birds of a feather (i.e. members in a group) flock together because they “sort of trust their own”. The recent work I’ve been doing about trust shows that–in fact–the opposite might well be true. Rather than trust, it seems that the dynamics of mistrust may play the key role in determining how groups come together to collaborate. Flocks flock because they mistrust something in their environment, not because they trust one another. This sounds “natural” for animals in the wild, but when it comes to humans, we somehow believe we are better than that–we are guided by morals and kindness. Indeed, we are experts at crafting moral-tinted narratives for all our human behaviour. But when we trust something or someone, we don’t really stop to hug each other happily ever after; we even drift apart as time goes by because we don’t have a good reason to go back and check on the status. While the full details of this picture remain to be written down rigorously, I want to sketch out some of these latest findings in this more popular form.

Earlier this year, I embarked upon a project to study trust with fresh eyes. It has revealed some highly suggestive, and perhaps unexpected, traits about human collaboration. In particular (and most lately), it has involved a study about how users edit the pages of Wikipedia. It’s a great case study, because there’s a lot of data to study. Some important lessons and tantalising phenomena are surely at work in those recorded interactions.

The tribulations of editing Wikipedia articles, involve multiple vested interests and non-aligned intentions. They offer a rare insight into a “reservoir” of dynamically similar but semantically different intentional processes, duplicated manifold at scale. This is the realm of Promise Theory, and Wikipedia offers a simple experimental system to test some of the consequences of the theory.

Perhaps unexpectedly, given the moral history of human study, the spectre of mistrust looms far larger there than do any niceties about moral goodness in these episodes. Thanks to the wonders of a technological age, most Wikiedpia users don’t even know one another, let alone care enough to trust one another, and yet they can trust or mistrust the content…

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Mark Burgess

@markburgess_osl on Twitter and Instagram. Science, research, technology advisor and author - see Http://markburgess.org and Https://chitek-i.org