On being naive…

I’m well aware that I’m a relatively naive type of person. My friends may not agree with this, but that is (ironically enough) because they know me. Once I know a person I am usually quite good at reading his or her intentions. Similarly, if I’m familiar with a situation I am not very easily tricked.

Instead, my naivety shows when I meet new people, or when I encounter new situations. My problem is literally that I always think the best of people before I get to know them. Perhaps because I’m very honest myself, I generally assume people around me to be honest as well. Unfortunately, we all know that is not the case. As a result, I have a phase of a few days up to a couple of weeks when I’m very vulnerable to being cheated or tricked, after which my rational mind takes over and analyzes the person or situation more correctly.

I have been told several times not to trust anyone; usually by my father, but sometimes from much less expected people. In the less expected cases, the advise followed after the person had been cheated or used by a person they really trusted. A very sad experience, but probably the only way to learn not to trust people… unless you are a dishonest person yourself.

Until now, my naivety has never led to any serious or bad experiences. Usually, all it leads to is me feeling incredibly stupid for not understanding a sarcastic joke, or perhaps not understanding that this person was perhaps not really telling me the truth the first time we met.

A more recent and clear example happened to me this week. Since a few days I have a bicycle which I have been given by a friend at work, so now I can finally put an end to the horrible rush hour commuting, with overcrowded buses that won’t even stop. However, it took only until the second day before my bicycle was stolen from the university’s bicycle parking garage, which has both security people and surveillance cameras. I had locked the bike, but not to some other object, so it could relatively easily have been carried away. The security guys had not seen anything, and when I asked them if I could see the video recordings, they told me to go to the security office the following morning.
I did so, and to my joy I found that my bike was safely stored in the security office! Full of gratitude I thanked the guys for what I though was a very nice gesture, namely taking care of a bike they considered not safely locked.

It was only later, when telling the story to a lab mate that I realized what had really happened. The security guys had obviously made an attempt to steal the bike themselves, but upon me asking to see the security video, returned it as if they were the good guys. If I hadn’t made the effort, they would just have waited a couple more days to ensure that no one is claiming the bike, and then cut the lock. But I only realized this after my lab mate expressed her disbelief in the security guys.

Again, my naivety probably didn’t change much this time, but only made me feel incredibly stupid for having showed such gratitude towards the douche bag who was obviously part of stealing my bike in the first place.

The question is whether it is actually possible to trust people without automatically being naive, think the best of people without necessarily being a victim for being cheated. To me it sounds like a paradox. So the question is what is more preferable: always assume people are nice and honest until they prove you wrong, with the occasional risk of getting cheated; or distrust people until they prove they are worthy of your trust, with the risk of missing many (if not most) chances of getting to know new people.

To my naive mind, the first option is clearly the best.

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5 thoughts on “On being naive…

  1. I would say that neither are correct. Remember Bayes Theorem and ML? Imagine that instead of a all or none situation you have probabilities. As a prior, you believed people are good. You got the bike back and you updated that prior, with a new observation that securities did a great job. You got your friend’s opinion and you updated your prior, and now you conclude that everyone is a jerk. I would say you are giving to much weight to this new observation. Don’t get wrong, I actually believe your friend can be right regarding the “they tried to steal your bike” opinion, but that doesn’t automatically should make you lose faith in mankind and assume you’re naive. Basically what I’m saying is that you’re being very biased by this event, which kind of make sense considering you were probably very emotional over the whole “losing my bike” business.

    P.S.: Hope you enjoyed reading the ML reference as much as I enjoyed writing it =p

    • You are right about me being temporarily biased, but that does not change the fundamental question – should people in general be trusted or not? In essence it becomes a matter of utility theory, too phrase it ML terms. Are there enough honest people to make up for the potential harm done by one dishonest person, and is the benefit of trusting those honest people larger than the cost of also trusting the dishonest ones? What I’m saying is that the majority of people may indeed be honest, but the harm done by those who aren’t might be bad enough for a cautious approach to still be more beneficial.

      Furthermore, you are somewhat missing the main point of my post, that I am a naive person, vulnerable to being cheated by people whom I don’t know. This could of course also be subject to bias, but in this case I know that I often fall for jokes or tricks made by people I don’t know, simply because I don’t expect to be tricked by a stranger. These are usually very innocent examples, but by extrapolation it is not unreasonable to believe that I would fall victim for the same type of fallacy in a more serious situation – say, when buying a car, or a house, or any other situation that depends on a certain amount of trust.

      • Ok, from my previous answer you probably saw that I am pro-trust.
        The way I see it, there are 2 clear sides on this story. 1) You are suspicious of people and therefor assume the worst, 2) you believe in people and assume you’re trust will pay back.
        A lot of people will argue for the 1st, and you’ll hear arguments about “zero sum games”, game theory, or to put it simply, if you exploit someone when that person trusts you, you come on top. If you assume you’re going to be exploited, then the other person will not be able to exploit you as much as if you had trust them. People like to rationalise it this way, and there! You have yourself a flawless logic for always assuming the worst. In a society where everyone is trustworthy, exploiting people’s trust is good for you as an individual, and in a society where everyone is dishonest it protects you. At an individual level this makes perfect sense.
        On the other hand, that view is simplistic in the sense that it assumes one interaction. On the short-term you might have gained the upper hand, but you also signalled to others that you’re not trustworthy. This will lead honest people to avoid interacting with you, while they interact with themselves. Since, in general, interactions where both agents trust each other tend to payoff more than interactions where they both are dishonest, at a local level, the small society of people that are honest evolve faster and gain an upper hand in regards to the dishonest societies.
        I believe that even if you are exploited by dishonest individuals, an honest approach will lead you to a more robust position in the long term. The people with whom you interact in an honest manner will remember that and will value it, specially if they are honest themselves. It hurts to be fooled, but it gives you soo much to have people you can trust.

      • Good points. I clearly live by the idea that honesty and trust will come back to me, and I’m by no means thinking of changing that behavior. I think that what I’m wishing for is just that I would be a tiny bit better at spotting when someone is telling me an obvious lie, and the bicycle story was just one such example. But maybe that’s where it all becomes paradoxical: if one constantly walks around prepared for spring a lie, one might automatically turn into a skeptical and non-trusting type of person.

        At the end of the day I guess it ask depends on what society you live in. In the very honest Finland, for example, definitely think an honest behavior will benefit you most in the long run. Unfortunately I’m not so sure that is the case in countries where bribing, cheating, and corruption are common. It clearly seems like all people, regarding their background, admire the Finnish honesty, but even so, people from less honest countries often did not hesitate taking advantage of this honesty if it could benefit themselves. It least it seems so to me when we studied in Finland last year.

  2. One single mistake of trust shouldn’t be a reason to change your trust of people 🙂 You have a lot of friends with the first option you used uptil now!!!

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