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The success of the contemporary coalition government will depend on psychological skills developed in the Stone Age argues Paul Seabright.

The UK is currently undergoing an interesting experiment in coalition government. It will require cooperation between partners who have no previous experience of working together in this way. This contrasts with much of continental Europe, where coalitions have been a fact of political life for a long time (since even before the Thirty Years War, according to a discussion of the Holy Roman Empire in Peter Wilson 's recent book of that title).

There has been much press mockery of the coalition's attempts to play up the personal chemistry between the participants, as though such considerations were irrelevant to the serious business of government. But recent research on the foundations of social trust suggest that personal chemistry is at the heart of serious business even in our sophisticated and globalized world.

The reason is simple. Economic transactions between strangers require mutual trust - in the quality of what is being exchanged, in the willingness of the parties to abide by their promises about the future. But trustworthiness is difficult to measure in a systematic way, and our judgments of the trustworthiness of others rely even more than we realise on pre-conscious reasoning, often embedded in the responses of our endocrine system. Something as simple and as complex as whether a person's smile seems genuine to us can have a large influence on our willing to trust them with our savings, our health, our lives.

We evolved psychological mechanisms for sizing up other people during our prehistoric hunter-gatherer existence, in which we were exposed to few people whom we mostly knew reasonably well. We now use these mechanisms to navigate the entire physical globe, with its teeming cities and that fathomless universe of anonymous exchange, the World Wide Web. Many of the people on whom our lives and our prosperity depend are individuals we never even see.

We do this job remarkably well given that our navigational instruments were designed for a different setting, in which the only interactions that mattered were those that happened face to face. What we have done in essence is to develop institutions that supply the foundations of trust in a world in which information about individuals is too slender to be reliable. I allow a stranger who knocks at my door to come into my house because he is wearing the uniform of a domestic appliance company; I therefore conclude he is here to repair the washing machine instead of to kill me and burgle the house. I don't need to know much about him to trust him, because I trust the company that employs him.

Trusting people we know very little is both inevitable and dangerous. We vote for politicians we scarcely know because we think we know their parties better than we know the individuals. We give our savings to people we scarcely know because we think we know the banks that employ them. But the institutions - parties, banks, firms - are only as reliable as the links between the individuals who make them up. A bank is a better place for your money than the mattress only if the people who work there are doing their jobs. The financial crisis has shown that some people who knew sophisticated things about investments on the other side of the world had no idea of the millions that were being recklessly gambled by colleagues in the next door office.

For institutions like the RSA who seek to build relationships with and between tens of thousands of people, the issue of trust is critical. Indeed the challenge for institutions which people trust in part because they have been around for so long, is to maintain this instinctive faith while changing the relationship between the centre and citizens. This may mean finding a fine balance between a consistent historical mission, alongside new ways of communicating and collaborating.

We also know trust matters in government. Whether the UK's experiment in coalition government works will depend on some tough economic calculations. But it will depend also on whether the individuals conducting it can trust each other enough to deliver on their promises. When an untried institution begins operation, the personal chemistry of the participants matters more than ever. This brings in to relief an interesting tension in politics – that between the trust that is needed between politicians for government to function well, and that between politicians and the voters.

Natural selection knew no other way to design us than this. We can manage such experiments better if we understand how much we depend on our Stone Age psychology to accomplish even our space age achievements.

Paul Seabright is Professor of Economics at the University of Toulouse


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