PROJECT M
 
PROJECT M
Diego Gambetta

Talking to the don of trust

Diego Gambetta is reluctant to have his photograph taken and would prefer not to talk over the phone. A remnant of his time in Sicily researching the mafia? The reality is more mundane. Gambetta prefers his written words do the talking for him, and while willing to be interviewed, he prefers to look his audience in the eye

Talking to the don of trust

Diego Gambetta is reluctant to have his photograph taken and would prefer not to talk over the phone. A remnant of his time in Sicily researching the mafia? The reality is more mundane. Gambetta prefers his written words do the talking for him, and while willing to be interviewed, he prefers to look his audience in the eye


 

PROJECT M

In the final chapter of Codes of the Underworld (2009), you discuss how the mafia has been portrayed in films and televisions. Do you have a particular favorite?

Diego Gambetta

I very much liked Donnie Brasco, the film based on the story of Joe Pistone, an undercover FBI agent. I think it was a realistic portrayal. It doesn’t make a myth of the mafia, rather it shows they make mistakes, and when they do they can pay dearly. They are not superhuman.

PROJECT M

What inspired you to go to Sicily and study the mafia?

Diego Gambetta

Partly it was my interest in one of the most enduring empirical puzzles in development economics: Why has the south of Italy manifested such a persistent inability to develop both socially and economically? This is a big question, even bigger than asking why an African sub-Saharan country may find it difficult to develop.

PROJECT M

Because southern Italy is part of a well-developed country.

Prosecutors Giovanni Falcone (left) and Paolo Borsellino © dpa Picture-Alliance/ansa

Diego Gambetta

Correct. They are neighbors with a region as rich as anywhere else in Europe. So, why are they stuck where they are? I thought it had to do with trust and that the weakness of this social lubricant in the south could be at the source of its tenacious development difficulties. Yet, I also wondered, if the conditions of distrust were so devastating, how did they reach some minimum of social order at all? Maybe they had developed a local institution as a poor quality substitute to trust. My conjecture was that the mafia at the beginning in the 19th century, may not have been a fully criminal organization, but rather a local institution where people could find resolution for disputes and some protection from violation of property rights. That is where my interest began. On the personal side, I was born and raised in Turin, in northern Italy, and although Sicily was part of my own country, it was as culturally alien to me as it would be to a Scandinavian. I had absolutely no understanding of it. As a social scientist, to make sense of the mafia was an irresistible challenge.

PROJECT M

Southern Italy had been studied by Banfield in 1958. What were you hoping to add?

Diego Gambetta

Banfield studied a place in southern Italy where there is no institution whatsoever. In this community, to which he gave the fictitious name of Montegrano, they didn’t even have a mafia, so they couldn’t even find a cheap way out of their dilemma. One millimeter beyond Montegrano society simply dies out. It stops existing. I studied an area that had at least found an imperfect way out through a local institution known as the mafia. That was the difference in our work.

 

PROJECT M

Reading your work, I was struck by the almost total abrogation of personal responsibility by the people involved.

Diego Gambetta

To make sense of the mafia was an irrestible challenge

There is a phrase used in Sicily, “A chi appartieni?” (Whom do you belong to?). The answer is “Sono cosa di X” (I am a thing of X). It means I am under the protection of X and have permission to use his name to gain trust, but that in turn I “belong” entirely to him and my behavior reflects upon his name. It counters to an extent the historic lack of trust that existed, but it doesn’t do it well as it discourages the emergence of ethical, reputation-based personal trust. If you behave well towards me because I am protected by a mafioso, then I don’t really think you do that because you are trustworthy. Rather, I think there is a man that will ensure that you will behave. Personally, I have no interest to behave well, unless I am told I must. So it becomes a completely externalized state of affairs. It isn’t that I behave correctly because I want to be in business tomorrow, or develop a good reputation in the community for the long term. There is simply no space for evolving trust on a pure interpersonal or purely business basis. You are deprived of personal responsibility. You do it not because you have a good character; you do it because you are under threat. In a sense, the law in general has aspects of this, but it leaves space for individuals to make their own choices.

PROJECT M

Is there any economic hope for Sicily?

Diego Gambetta

Since the late 1980s, the state has become more effective. The investigative work of courageous public prosecutors, in particular Paolo Borsellino and Giovanni Falcone, who paid with their lives, persuaded many mafiosi to become state witnesses. I believe the mafia has never had it as difficult in Sicily as today. Most of the important people are in jail. At the same time, the breathing space generated by more effective law and order intervention has allowed civil society to find energy. Businessmen have begun to look down on people who collaborated or paid protection money. But this energy will need time to take root.

PROJECT M

You once described trust as “an elusive notion.” After all your years of work do you believe you’ve come closer to capturing it?

Diego Gambetta

Maybe not in a metaphysical sense, but in an operational sense, yes. In “Trust in Signs,” a paper written with my late friend Michael Bacharach, we finally got to grips with a clear idea of trust. I’m not talking about trust you may have in friends, your wife or your priest, but situations where I expect you to do something which if you were not trustworthy it would not pay for you to do. After that work, I felt more confident that I had pinned trust down as I wanted it.

PROJECT M

Economist Oliver E. Williamson says trust justified by expectations of positive reciprocal consequences is simply another version of economic exchange. This he describes as “calculative trust,” a term to which he takes exception. The word trust, he feels, should be reserved for non-calculative personal relations between family, friends and lovers. Do you agree?

Diego Gambetta

Before we defined trust more precisely, I would have had sympathy with that. However, in a very analytical way I don’t. I may know it is in your best interest to be trustworthy, but how do I know you are intelligent enough to understand that? At some level I need to trust that you are not seeing the world different to me. I still need to take into account that you are able to calculate that to be trustworthy is in your interest. There is also another issue, a second-order kind of trust which we often encounter, especially in this age of faceless communication: I may know and trust X for whatever reason, including that I think his interests overlap with mine, but how do I know that the person I am interacting with is really X and not a mimic – someone pretending to be X?

PROJECT M

What is your preferred definition of trust? In “Can We Trust Trust?” you defined trust as a particular expectation we have with regard to the likely behavior of others.” Elsewhere, you offer “trust is our expectation that another person (or institution) will perform actions that are beneficial or at least not detrimental to us, regardless of our capacity to monitor those actions.”

Diego Gambetta

The first one is too generic, the second one is a little better. An even better one is to be found in the paper with Michael. When can we say we trust someone? When we expect them to do Y, a certain action beneficial to us, even when there is Z, another action which, if they are strictly self-interested, they may prefer to do and would be damaging for us. For this expectation to be trust, both truster and trustee must know that by trusting, the truster gives the trustee an opportunity to do Z. That is, I give you the money because I believe you will return it, but I am also giving you the opportunity to pocket it. If the trustee is untrustworthy and does Z, then the truster would have done better for himself by not trusting.

PROJECT M

Can we trust trust indexes?

Diego Gambetta

There is a problem with measuring trust with survey questions. Trust consists of two concepts: one is how much you trust people and the other is trustworthiness – how much people live up to your trust. At best, surveys can pick up the level at which you trust other people, but they do not pick up whether other people are trustworthy or not. You cannot ask people “are you trustworthy?” as everyone would say “yes,” so they only measure half of trust. The other problem is the way the question is typically asked: “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted?” This is very abstract. You don’t know who the people interviewed had in mind when they answered: friends, family, neighbors, people on the street? Or trust in what sense – to water the plants while I am away, return money I loaned them, keep a secret? It then becomes difficult to compare answers because of the generic quality of the question. There is also an empirical reason to be cautious of surveys. Several trust experiments found no correlation between the decision people make in experiments – to trust or not – and their answers to trust surveys. These experiments are very precise and involve a focused money transfer, so I prefer these results to surveys.

PROJECT M

How did your book on taxi drivers stem from your study of the mafia and distrust?

Diego Gambetta

Only very indirectly in the sense that studying the mafia led me to study signaling; it made me aware that these people were subtle signalers and readers of signals. It is a misconception to think of a mafioso as an action man. One thing I had discovered in my fieldwork was how worried they were about being pirated, of being mimicked by imposters and undercover agents. That made me think they must put a lot of work into how they make themselves known, how they credibly signal who they are. The other question is how do they trust each other? When you have all the reasons in the world not to trust each other, how can you still cooperate? This inspired my interest in signaling, both honest and fraudulent. The taxi drivers were an application of that because of their properties: they make quick trust decisions with little information at hand. We worked in New York and Belfast, cities where drivers thought about danger constantly and had to make near instant decisions.

PROJECT M

Where do you go from here?

Diego Gambetta

I am doing a set of experiments in northern and southern Italy with Italian economists to determine whether differences in trust that anecdotally exist are actually confirmed.

PROJECT M

Can you imagine going back to work in Italy?

Diego Gambetta

Actually, I am going back in September to work for the European University Institute in Florence.

PROJECT M

I assume this isn’t part of the Italian academic environment? Your description of the corruption, incompetence and cronyism of the academic kakistocracy in “Concatenations of mechanisms” (1998) probably didn’t make you very popular.

Diego Gambetta

You can assume that. I did not make many friends with my description and, I am afraid to say, it still works that way. There are niche fields trying to break out, but largely it still functions the way I described. It is hardly a way to encourage excellence in academia or a socially optimal outcome.

PROJECT M

Diego, good luck with your new research and thank you for your time.

Diego Gambetta

Thank you for your time and interest.

Download a layouted pdf of the interview here

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