Confidence: how to make uncertainty tolerable



Trust is a basic fact of life in society, it is also the most effective form of reducing complexity. Trust establishes a very singular relationship to time: by granting trust, we anticipate the future; we act as if we were certain of the future; we thus absorb its uncertainty and can therefore cooperate with others, with the hope of deriving greater benefit from it.

In the logic of complex systems, trust is devoid of any moral dimension. Trust is part of a decision-making process; it is a factor in implementing a choice. In this sense? it differs from mere hope, which is based on a logic of betting on the future devoid of any rational basis. Trust refers to a choice that consists in assessing whether the damage resulting from a breach of trust is greater than the benefit to be expected from respecting the trust. The person who trusts knows that the other person has his or her own freedom and margin of action, but positions himself or herself in relation to them to reduce uncertainty. Whereas the one who hopes simply gives himself an assurance against uncertainty.

However, trust is not established by weighing the elements of the choice exclusively in a rational way. It can indeed be routine and not require a complicated exercise of conscience. Most of our contemporaries take to the streets unarmed to defend themselves against possible aggression; their confidence in their safety is a natural part of their societal behaviour. Confidence is thus established as an unconscious expectation and has the function of structuring and reducing the complexity factors of life in society. In this situation, it is easy to understand that trust opens up possibilities for action that would otherwise be neither attractive nor even conceivable. If trust in the safety of every individual on the street were to be broken, and it were necessary, for example, to arm oneself to live in the society of others, our world would be particularly unliveable or very different from the one we know. Yet in our complex societies, everyone has a legitimate concern for his or her own safety. Confidence, which is the result of a choice between arming oneself or trusting in others or in institutions, can therefore be seen not only as a reduction in complexity but also, in a way, as a tension towards indifference. Indeed, while we know that there is risk and uncertainty that cannot be eliminated, they must not disrupt action, in this case everyday life.

However, whether implicit or explicit, trust is not a natural given; it must be learned, it is the subject of learning that begins in individuals in early childhood; learning that complex organizations are not exempt from. Trust is the product of learning, and social systems must also learn to trust. Learning to trust is the same for individuals as it is for organizations. In both cases, whether it is a child within the family or a functional system within society, learning is based on the experiences that the learner makes about himself or herself. Indeed, the learner who learns confidence starts from himself in order to generalize his experience to others. It is because he is trusted that he can be led to trust others. This is why trust is by nature fragile because it is always projected, in return, on an environment.

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Persons or institutions that are trusted thus acquire a relatively precarious status, highly sensitive to the slightest disturbance, each event being judged by the level of trust given. Everything that happens is therefore seen as a symptom and is given special importance. The slightest isolated event takes on decisive importance, as if it were a test. The lie, the clumsiness of presentation, the slightest unusual defect take on an implacable acuteness that calls into question the whole edifice of the relationship of trust. This is how crises are born: the financial crisis of 2008 is symptomatic of a crisis of confidence. It is important to specify, however, that the construction of trust is not shaken, or even destroyed, by just any information. Indeed, the person or organisation that is trusted has a certain amount of credit capital that buffers unfavourable information in the light of experience. In the trust mechanism, there is a greater or lesser degree of absorption of information. In this respect, we can speak of the existence of thresholds that relativize experiences and allow trust to act as a reducer of complexity. Absolute mistrust is in this respect an important factor of complexity and discomfort.

Confidence thus presupposes an elasticity in tolerance that is only made possible by the existence of thresholds, i.e. symbolic behavioural modalities that are sufficiently clear and defined. In this case, the loss of confidence, when it occurs, is not based on judgment in relation to a reality that is far too complex, but on a symbolic construction that does not need to be explained. It operates without discussion or justification and can take catastrophic turns, in the mathematical sense of the term: the sudden collapse of a system. The fraud perpetrated by Bernard Madoff, the famous Wall Street financier, was built up over years on the mechanism of trust, against a population of international investors who were nevertheless seasoned in terms of suspicion. When, at the end of 2008, in the midst of the financial crisis, the deception came to light, the subtly elaborate scheme collapsed like a house of cards, with "catastrophic" consequences estimated at more than $50 billion.

Confidence is therefore inseparably linked to control, but control which is not necessarily based on verifiable and tangible facts, actually validated, but on a grossly simplified apparatus of indices which constantly return information used to determine whether or not it is legitimate to grant confidence.

However, the more complex a social system becomes, the more diluted the methods of control become, thus immunizing the system from the risks of individual disappointment and saving it the expense of constantly providing evidence that the trust received is not being violated. Moreover, as the world itself becomes more and more complex, the demand for reduced complexity makes trust a presupposition of the normal and rational conduct of social existence. The learning of trust in society therefore leads to adapting one's behaviour no longer according to the individual trust one brings oneself, but according to the trust brought by other actors, e.g. experts. It cannot be otherwise in complex societies unless we question the way they function. From this point of view, the control of trust is thus not only delegated to other actors who possess the competence, but it is also delegated within the functional spheres that require trust. However, the control and sanction mechanisms must be explicit, organized and balanced, which is a real challenge for society.

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