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Say a nine-year-old girl is walking home from school in a small rural town, and it starts to rain. A car pulls up, and a middle-aged man she’s never met offers her a ride home. This scenario makes a lot of people nervous. Because the girl doesn’t know this guy, she doesn’t know if he’s a pedophile, a kidnapper, or a murderer. So, the common wisdom that pretty much every kid was taught when I was little was to refuse the ride–even to just totally ignore the guy. If, however, the driver is the little girl’s neighbor or a friend of her parents or her friend’s dad or someone that she’s seen around town, then the guy’s not a stranger, so she can get into the car and feel perfectly safe.
Obviously, this system doesn’t pass a basic plausibility test. In the first scenario, while the guy was a stranger to her, he’s definitely somebody’s son, is almost certainly somebody’s neighbor, many other people’s friend, and somebody that lots of people see around town, and is pretty likely to be somebody’s dad as well. So, unless this nine-year-old girl has a uniquely gifted ability to pick good neighbors, parents’ friends, friends’ parents, and people she sees around town, then a stranger to her is roughly as likely to be some kind of “bad guy” as someone that she knows. (This is admittedly an oversimplification, but I’ve probably already talked more about this situation than I should on a poker blog. Attempts to find a decent discussion of the issue to link to for interested readers failed miserably. One may not even exist because obviously this is an issue that’s dominated by people who are rather zealous and irrational. If you’d like to talk more about it, bug me on twitter or 2p2 or in the comments or something.)
We use this same terrible logic in tons of situations; we treat strangers with unnecessary suspicion, and we trust people that we know to a remarkable degree. For example, people tend to be pretty guarded about flashing even small amounts of cash in public, but are perfectly willing to let friends of friends into their houses when they have a party–usually with plenty of valuable, stealable things around. This system always feels really natural and reasonable; strangers feel inhuman, and people that we’ve talked to or heard about from friends feel much more human and therefore much safer. But, it relies on the flawed assumption that either bad people don’t end up entering anybody’s social circle or that our social circles is somehow privileged. The first is empirically false, and the second obviously can’t be true for everybody.
The fact of the matter is that most people–strangers or not–have a lot of integrity. In fact, next time you’re walking down the street in a “bad” neighborhood with someone behind you, drop a $100 bill and pretend not to notice. The guy behind you is way way more likely to give it back than he is to take it. I know this from experience as a man who consistently drops and loses valuable things and gets them promptly, kindly, and awkwardly returned. (FWIW, he’s probably a bit more likely to pretend he didn’t see it and hope someone else deals with it than to return it himself.) So, we use an old-fashioned, instinctive system of completely trusting people that we know as a good approximation for the correct system: trusting everyone almost completely barring any direct evidence that we shouldn’t. In most scenarios, this leads people to be overly cautious around strangers and treat people that they know with about the right level of caution. That’s not a big deal, although it probably makes subway rides significantly less pleasant.
In the poker world, we basically use this same flawed system, and it fails tremendously, but in the opposite direction. We place tons of trust in people we know and use an informal vouching system to place tons of trust in friends of friends, and it repeatedly bites us in the ass. Perhaps the most blatant failure of this system was when one of the most respected men in poker, Barry Greenstein, defended the undisputed most hated man in poker, Russ Hamilton, in the face of tons of evidence that made it pretty clear that Russ was guilty and in spite of Russ’s shady past. More close to home, I’ve personally vouched for three different people who have later gone on to screw people over. (FWIW, one has made things right, one appears to be attempting to do so, and one has paid back everybody but me.) In fact, I bet that almost every single person that’s been caught scamming, cheating, or stealing in the poker world has had someone vouch for him in good faith.
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