28 August 2020

Wormholes, trust and the science of decision-making

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Rob Fitzgerald 

One of the features of the first COVID-19 lockdown was that it gave us the rare opportunity to internet wormhole to our heart’s content.

One such wormhole I found myself sucked into was a gamified explanation of Game Theory (optimised decision-making) by Nicky Case: The Evolution of Trust. If you have a spare 30 minutes one evening, it's quite fun wormhole to fall down.

The game utilises a modified version of a philosophical/mathematical conundrum called The Prisoner’s Dilemma (a paradox explained here, and exemplified here with a clever little workaround to increase the odds in your favour). Through this, it explores how trust works (or doesn’t), given the additional complexities of differing personality traits. The key concept, as with Case’s game, it that in any relationship, miscommunication negates trust.

Working my way through this, it struck me that the philosophical conundrums of decision-making are directly relevant to our public relations realm in this “post truth” age.

In positioning the exercise, Case refers to an "epidemic of distrust”. Given she is from the US, that’s understandable considering their prevailing political and social environment. But do we really have an epidemic of distrust here in New Zealand?

One only needs to look at the Government response to the COVID-19 pandemic to see that they have inspired a great deal of trust, based on their initial success in containing the first wave of the virus.

Even regular detractors, with the obvious exceptions, cast aside their political leanings and gave PM Jacinda Ardern and her “Team of Five Million” their due credit. Her decisions were viewed as being based on solid medical and scientific advice, and her accompanying message to “Be Kind” was spoken with such earnest authenticity that the words adorned road signs, teddy bears sprang up in suburban windows across the country, and Ashley Bloomfield’s media conferences induced a hysteria usually reserved for boy bands.

She trusted Aotearoa to follow her rules, and they in turn trusted her to make the right decisions. Even when the first nine days of Lockdown Part I were deemed to have been unlawful, the Government escaped with the publicly supported caveat that it was justified.

Trust is fundamental to functioning in our complex and interdependent society – it’s a form of social capital that every person, political party, and organisation trades in. It’s hard to gain, but easy to lose.

It’s also one of the cornerstones of effective public relations, and carries an element of risk for each party involved in the exchange. When it’s breached or broken, the consequences can be catastrophic – damaging reputations, losing elections and destroying businesses.

It’s so delicate a relationship that even a perceived breach can have those same outcomes.

The Government has successfully developed a trusting relationship with the public. But given the level of frustration people in Auckland are currently exhibiting, through flagrant rule flouting and general discontent, how much longer will that last?

The vast majority still believe that the Government’s intentions are good. But the public is beginning to feel burned by their perceived failings in adequately containing the virus after the first wave, and this has eroded some of their hard-won support, particularly in the business community.

Can the trust they have built survive COVID-19 fatigue? For those whose reputation relies on building and maintaining a trusting relationship with the public, the outcome is one to which they should pay careful heed.