Hierarchy of trust

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The hierarchy of trust (or hierarchy of negotiation) is a way of ordering different levels of rationality in negotiations or discussions between two or more different entities.

As one entity loses trust in the other(s), the discussion moves down the hierarchy; as entities come to trust each other more, the discussion can move up the hierarchy. Higher levels are more likely to result in generally favorable (positive-sum) outcomes than lower levels.

The most basic levels are:

  • agreement: no real dispute; maybe some haggling over details, but nobody feels strongly that someone else is wrong
  • reasonable disagreement: A and B have reached different conclusions, but neither A nor B believes that the other's conclusion is unreasonable.
    • That is, A and B are reaching different conclusions via intuition, but both A and B agree that the other's conclusions are consistent with the evidence.
    • This presumes that A and B also have a body of mutually-agreed upon evidence.
  • unreasonable disagreement: A believes that B's conclusions make no sense, and vice-versa.
    • To the extent that the issue involves some decision which affects both parties, disagreement tends to become hostility, as both parties may feel threatened by the choice the other party prefers.

The further down the hierarchy you go, the more the following become true:

  • A and B are working from a very different set of basic beliefs, and at least one party's beliefs are not subject to updating.
  • One or both parties are not using rational analysis at all, but some other form of epistemology (e.g. received truth)
  • One or both parties are not being honest about their goals and intentions.
  • Where there is conflict over a decision involving both parties, that conflict can only be resolved coercively.


"Hostility" can be either overt (a declaration of opposition/enmity/war) or covert (behind-the-scenes maneuvering to favor one's own position) to various degrees. Propaganda, cold war, dog-whistles, and trade sanctions all fall somewhere along this spectrum.


There may actually be more than one dimension here:

  • strength of disagreement (how fervently one party believes in the rightness of their own position in comparison to the positions taken by others)
  • disparity of value (how much difference there is in the amount of benefit/harm each party assigns to each of the choices being considered)