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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Jelly of the Week: Twisted trust: why sometimes strangers are more reliable than friends

Published: February 3, 2012
Section: Opinions

A few nights ago in the Shapiro Campus Center Library, something odd happened to me. I was sitting, ostensibly doing my work while really just messing around on my computer, when a guy I didn’t know who had been sitting at a table nearby asked me to watch his stuff for a few minutes.
At first it may not seem that strange at all. In my experience, this is a pretty ordinary occurrence at Brandeis. I then, however, started to think about it. To me, it seems most logical to ask a friend to watch your stuff. You can surely trust a friend. What seems very odd is asking someone you do not know to watch your stuff. The whole purpose behind having someone watch your stuff is that potentially, were someone to notice immediately that you had left and jump into the room with the intention of stealing your laptop within the time span of a bathroom break, it would not happen. The logic holds up with a friend. Generally, I’d expect that even if my friend did take my laptop, it would just be a joke and it would be returned to me promptly. The entire purpose, however, is defeated when it is a stranger.

While I think of myself as a trustworthy person, and I certainly was not planning on doing anything to his stuff, it’s a little fun to muse about what I could possibly have done that would make trusting me a bad idea. I could certainly have gone the boring route and just stolen his laptop. I could also have gotten a little more interesting and maybe turned his backpack inside out, as was the custom for such an occasion when I was in ninth grade. If I really wanted to get a little risky, I could have put a spider in his bag.

The point is that since he didn’t know me, I was every bit as dangerous to his possessions as some anonymous stranger for whom I would supposedly be watching out. This has happened multiple times and it seems to me to be a pattern—at least at Brandeis—that we can be extremely trusting of one another even when it seems a tad illogical.

So the question is, why did he trust me? Why do all people in that situation choose to trust a stranger? I think that a lot of it is just appearance. Likely, upon looking at me, he made subconscious calculations. He likely saw a studious-looking kid, about his age, almost certainly a student and in many ways very comparable to himself. The very act of sitting in the same room doing approximately the same activity created a sort of connection by which he could assume that he could trust me.

Furthermore, perhaps it is just human nature to trust people based on agreements. We want to take people at their word, and when I said that I would watch his stuff I was in essence entering into a very informal verbal contract. Obviously one is more inclined to trust that someone won’t do something if they actually give an explicit guarantee that they will do the opposite of doing something, and just keep watch with vigilance.
There is, however, an interesting converse to this. I’m sure that many out there have been “hacked” by friends on Facebook or other social media websites. It has happened to me many times. Assuming that the “hacker” is not an experienced computer science major—or just someone who actually is literate with computers (not me)—it results from leaving your computer open to your page. It is almost exclusively friends who hack other friends, and people can often be concerned that they’ll be hacked, pre-empting it by telling friends not to do it. Interestingly, it appears that it is strangers whom you can trust in the SCC library, but just not the friend sitting next to you.

In my opinion, this is because we feel a license to violate rules with our friends. It is with our friends that we are allowed to make inappropriate jokes. It is our friends whom we can tease and with whom we can cross the line. It is furthermore our friends whom we can hack, rob and otherwise do wrong, knowing that it is all in good fun and that the favor will be repaid soon enough. With strangers it is different, as we feel a sort of formality and therefore won’t risk pushing boundaries. This is just a way of common human social interaction.

Overall, I do not think I’ve ever heard of someone being robbed after telling a stranger to watch his stuff in the library, and yet I have been hacked many times. The ways in which we trust or do not trust require extensive research truly to understand, but from this anecdotal examination of Brandeis, it looks like there’s a lot to be said for a tendency to be respectful and trusting of strangers in certain situations while being worried about friends.