Iterated Trust Kickstarters

Epistemic Status: I haven’t actually used this through to completion with anyone. But, it seems like a tool that I expect to be useful, and it only really works if multiple people know about it.

In this post, I want to make you aware of a few things:

Iterated kickstarters: Kickstarters where all the payment doesn’t go in instantly – instead people pay in incrementally, after seeing partial progress on the goal. (Or, if you don’t actually have a government-backed-assurance-contract, people pay in incrementally as you see other people pay in incrementally, so the system doesn’t require as much trust to bootstrap)

Trust kickstarters: Kickstarters that are not about money, and are instead about “do we have the mutual trust, goodwill and respect necessary to pull a project or relationship off?” I might be wary of investing into my relationship with you, if I don’t think you’re going to invest in me.

Iterated trust kickstarters: Combining those two concepts – incrementally ratcheting up trust over time. I think this something people intuitively do sometimes, but it’s nice to be able to do it intentionally, and communicate crisply about it.


Alternate phrasing of a key insight: one solution to a prisoner’s dilemma is to break it into multiple stages, so you have an iterated prisoner’s dilemma, which has a different incentive structure.

Iterated Kickstarters

In The Strategy of Conflict, Thomas Schelling (of Schelling Point fame), poses a problem: Say you have a one-shot coordination game. If Alice put in a million dollars, and her business partner Bob puts in a million dollars, they both get their money back, plus $500,000 extra. But if only one of you puts in a million, the other can abscond with it.

A million dollars is a lot of money for most people. Jeez.

What to do?

Well, hopefully you live in a society that has built well-enforced laws around assurance contracts (aka “kickstarters”). You put in a million. If your partner backs out, the government punishes them, and/​or forces them to return the money.

But what if there isn’t a government? What if we live in the Before Times, and we’re two rival clans who for some reason have a temporary incentive to work together (but still incentive to defect)? What if we live in present day, but Alice and Bob are two entirely different countries with no shared tradition of cooperation?

There are a few ways to solve this. But one way is to split the one shot dilemma into an iterated game. Instead of putting in a million dollars, you each put in $10. If you both did that, then you each put in another $10, and another. Now that the game is iterated, the payoff strategy changes from prisoner’s dilemma to stag hunt. Sure, at any given time you could defect, but you’d be getting a measly $10, and giving up on a massive half-million potential payoff.

You see small versions of this fairly commonly on craigslist or in other low-trust contract work. “Pay me half the money up front, and then half upon completion.”

This still sometimes results in people running off with the first half of the money. I’m assuming people do “half and half” instead of splitting it into even smaller chunks because the transaction costs get too high. But for many contractors, there are benefits to following through (instead of taking the money and running), because there’s still a broader iterated game of reputation, and getting repeat clients, who eventually introduce you to other clients, etc.

(You might say that the common employment model of “I do a week of work, and then you pay me for a week of work, over and over again” is a type of iterated kickstarter).

If you’re two rival clans of outlaws, trying to bootstrap trust, it’s potentially fruitful to establish a tradition of cooperation, where the longterm payoff is better than any individual chance to defect.

Trust Kickstarters

Meanwhile: sometimes the thing that needs kickstarting is not money, but trust and goodwill.

Goodwill kickstarters

I’ve seen a few situations where multiple parties feel aggrieved, exhausted, and don’t want to continue a relationship anymore. This could happen to friends, lovers, coworkers, or project-cofounders.

They each feel like the other person was more at fault. They each feel taken advantage of, and like it’d make them a doormat if they went and extended an olive branch when the other guy hasn’t even said “sorry” yet.

This might come from a pure escalation spiral: Alice accidentally is a bit of a jerk to Bob on Monday. Then Bob feels annoyed and acts snippy at Alice on Tuesday. Then on Wednesday Alice is like “jeez Bob what’s your problem?” and then is actively annoying as retribution. And by the end of the month they’re each kinda actively hostile and don’t want to be friends anymore.

Sometimes, the problem stems from cultural mismatches. Carl keeps being late to meetings with Dwight. For Dwight, “not respecting my time” is a serious offense that annoys him a lot. For Carl, trying to squeeze in a friend hangout when you barely have time is a sign of love (and meanwhile doesn’t care when people are late). At first, they don’t know about each other’s different cultural assumptions, and they just accidentally ‘betray’ each other. Then they start getting persistently mad about the conflict and accrue resentment.

Their mutual friend Charlie comes by and sees that Alice and Bob are in conflict, but the conflict stems is all downstream from a misunderstanding, or a minor mishap that really didn’t need to have been a big deal.

“Can’t you just both apologize and move on?” asks Charlie.

But by now, after months of escalation, Alice and Bob have both done some things that were legitimately hurtful to each other, or have mild PTSD-like symptoms around each other.

They’d be willing to sit down, apologize, and work through their problems, if the other one apologized first. When they imagine apologizing first, they feel scared and vulnerable.

I’ll be honest, I feel somewhat confused about how to best to relate to this sort of situation. I’m currently related it through the lens of game-theory. I can imagine the best advice for most people is to not overthink it, don’t stress about game theory. Maybe you should just be letting your hearts and bodies be talking to each other, elephant to elephant.

But… also, it seems like the game theory is just really straightforward here. A “goodwill kickstarter” really should Just Work in these circumstances. If it’s true that “I would apologize to you if you apologized to me”, and vice versa, holy shit, why are you two still fighting?

Just, agree that you will both apologize conditional on the other person apologizing, and that you would both be willing to re-adopt a friendship relational stance conditional on the other person doing that.

And then, do that.

Competence Kickstarter

Alternately, you might to kickstart “trust in competence.”

Say that Joe keeps screwing up at work – he’s late, he’s dropping the ball on projects, he’s making various minor mistakes, he’s communicating poorly. And his boss Henry has started getting angry about it, nagging Joe constantly, pressuring Joe to stay late to finish his work, constantly micromanaging him.

I can imagine some stories here where Joe was “originally” the one at fault (he was just bad at his job for some preventable reason one week, and then Henry started getting mad). I can also imagine stories here where the problems stemmed originally from Henry’s bad management (maybe Henry was taking some unrelated anger out on Joe, and then Joe started caring less about his job).

Either way, by now they can’t stand each other. Joe feels anxious heading into work each day. Henry feels like talking to Joe isn’t worth it.

They could sit down, earnestly talk through the situation, take stock of how to improve it. But they don’t feel like they can have that conversation, for two reasons.

One reason is that there isn’t enough goodwill. The situation has escalated and both are pissed at each other.

Another reason, though, is that they don’t trust each other’s competence.

Manager Henry doesn’t trust that Joe can actually reliably get his work done.

Employee Joe doesn’t believe that Henry can give Joe more autonomy, talk to him with respect, etc.

In some companies and some situations, by this point it’s already too late. It’s pretty overdetermined that Henry fires Joe. But that’s not always the right call. Maybe Henry and Joe have worked together long enough to remember that they used to be able to work well together. It seems like it should be possible to repair the working relationship. Meanwhile Joe has a bunch of talents that are hard to replace – he built many pieces of the company infrastructure and training a new person to replace him would be costly. And there’s a bunch of nice things about the company they work that makes Joe prefer not to have to quit to find a better job elsewhere.

To repair the relationship, Henry needs to believe that Joe can start getting work done reliably. Joe needs to believe that Henry can start treating him with respect, without shouting angrily or micromanaging.

This only works if they in fact both can credibly signal that they will do these things. This works if the missing ingredient is “just try harder.” Maybe the only reason Joe isn’t working reliably is that he no longer believes it’s worth it, and the only reason Henry is being an annoying manager is that he felt like he needed to get Joe to get his stuff done on time.

In that case, it’s reasonably straightforward to say: “I would do my job if you did yours”, coupled with the relational-stance-change of “I would become genuinely excited to be your employee if you became genuinely excited about being my boss”.

Sometimes, this won’t work. The kickstarter can’t trigger because Henry doesn’t, in fact, trust Joe to do the thing, even if Joe is trying hard.

But, you can still clearly lay out the terms of the kickstarter. “Joe, here’s what I need from you. If you can’t do that, maybe I need to fire you. Maybe you need to go on a sabbatical and see if you can get your shit together.” Maybe you can explore other possible configurations. Maybe the reason Joe isn’t getting his work done is because of a problem at home, and he needs to take a couple weeks off to fix his marriage or something, but would be able to come back and be a valuable team member afterwards.

I think having the terms of the kickstarter clearly laid out is helpful for thinking about the problem, without having to commit to anything.

Why do you need to think about this in terms of “kickstarter”, rather than just “a deal?”. What feels special to me about relationship kickstarters is that relationship (and perhaps other projects) benefit from investment and momentum. If your stance is “I’m ready to jump and execute this plan if only other people were onboard and able to fulfill their end”, then you can be better positioned to get moving quickly as soon as the others are on board.

The nice thing about the kickstarter frame, IMO, is I can take a relationship that is fairly toxic, and I can set my internal stance to be ready to fix the relationship, but without opening myself up to exploitation if the other person isn’t going to do the things I think are necessary on their end.

Iterated Trust Kickstarters

And then, sometimes, a one-shot kickstarter isn’t enough.

Henry and Joe

In the case of Henry and Joe: maybe “just try harder” isn’t good enough. Joe has some great skills, but is genuinely bad at managing his time. Henry is good at the big picture of planning a project, but finds himself bad at managing his emotions, in a way that makes him bad at actually managing people.

It might be that even if they both really wanted things to work out, and were going to invest fully in repairing their working relationship… the next week, Joe might miss a deadline, and Henry would snippily yell at him in a way that was unhelpful. They both have behavioral patterns that will not change overnight.

In that case, you might want to combine “trust kickstarter” and “iterated kickstarter.”

Here, Joe and Henry both acknowledge that they’re expecting this to be a multi-week (or month) project. The plan needs to include some slack to handle the fact that they might fuck up a bit, and a sense of what’s supposed to happen when one of them screws up. It also needs a mechanism for saying “you know what, this isn’t working.”

“Iterated Trust Kickstarter” means, “I’m not going to fully start trusting you because you say you’re going to try harder and trust me in turn. But, I will trust you a little bit, and give it some chance to work out, and then trust you a bit more, etc.” And vice versa.

Rebuilding a Marriage

A major reason to want this is that sometimes, you feel like someone has legitimately hurt you. Imagine a married couple who had a decade or so of great marriage, but then ended up in a several-year spiral where they stop making time for each other, get into lots of fights. Each of them has built up a story in their head where the other person is hurting them. Each of them has done some genuinely bad things (maybe cheated, maybe yelled a lot in a scary way).

Relationships that have gone sour can be really tricky. I’ve seen a few people end up in states where I think it’s legitimately reasonable to be worried their partner is abusive, but also, it’s legitimately reasonable to think that the bad behavioral patterns are an artifact of a particularly bad set of circumstances. If Alice and Bob were to work their way out of those circumstances, they could still rebuild something healthy and great.

In those cases, I think it’s important for people to able invest a little back into the relationship – give a bit of trust, love, apology, etc, as a signal that they think the relationship is worth repairing. But, well, “once bitten, twice shy.” If someone has hurt you, especially multiple times, it’s sometimes really bad to leap directly into “fully trusting the other person.”

I think the Iterated Trust Kickstarter concept is something a lot of people do organically without thinking about it in exactly these terms (i.e lots of people damage a relationship and then slowly/​carefully repair it).

I like having the concept handle because it helps me think about how exactly I’m relating to a person. It provides a concrete frame for avoiding the failure modes of “holding a relationship at a distance, such that you’re basically sabotaging attempts to repair it”, and “diving in so recklessly that you end up just getting hurt over and over.”

The ITK frame helps me lean hard into repairing a relationship, in a way that feels safe.

(disclaimer: I haven’t directly used this framework through to completion, so I can’t vouch for it working in practice. But this seems to mostly be a formalization of a thing I see people doing informally that works alright)

Concrete Plans

For an ITK to work out, I think there often needs to be a concrete, workable plan. It may not enough to just start trusting each other and hope it works out.

If you don’t trust each other’s competence (either at “doing my day job”, or “learning to speak each other’s love languages”), then, you might need to check:

  • Does Alice/​Bob each understand what things they want from one another? If this is about emotional or communication skills they don’t have, do they have a shared understanding of what skills they are trying to gain and why they will help?

  • Do they have an actual workable plan for gaining those skills?

Say that Bob has tried to get better at communication a few times, but he keeps running into the same ugh fields which prevent him from focusing on the problem. He and Alice might need to work out a plan together for navigating those ugh fields before Alice will feel safe investing more in the relationship.

And if Alice is already feeling burned, she might already be so estranged that she’s not willing to help Bob come up with a plan to navigate the ugh-fields. “Bob, my terms for the initial step in the kickstarter is that I need you to have already figured out how to navigate ugh fields on your own, before I’m willing to invest anything.”

Unilaterally Offering Kickstarters

Part of why I’d like to have this concept in my local rationalist-cultural-circles is that I think it’s pretty reasonable to extend a kickstarter offer unilaterally, if everyone involved is already familiar with the concept and you don’t have to explain it.

(New coordinated schemes are costly to evaluate, so if your companion isn’t already feeling excited about working with you on something, it may be asking too much of them to listen to you explain Iterated Trust Kickstarters in the same motion as asking them to consider “do you want to invest more in your relationship with me?”)

But it feels like a useful tool to have in the water, available when people need it.

In many of the examples so far, Alice and Bob both want the relationship to succeed. But, sometimes, there’s a situation Alice has totally given up on the relationship. Bob may also feel burned by Alice, but he at least feels there’s some potential value on the table. And it’d be nice to easily be able to say:

“Alice, for what it’s worth, I’d be willing to talk through the relationship, figure out what to do, and do it. I’m still mad, but I’d join the Iterated Kickstarter here.” If done right, this doesn’t have to cost Bob anything other than the time spent saying the sentence, and Alice the time spent listening to it. If Alice isn’t interested, that can be the end of that.

But sometimes, knowing that someone else would put in effort if you also would, is helpful for rekindling things.