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Disney's Raya and the Economics of Trust: Examining How Trust Facilitates Cooperation

What Raya and the Last Dragon teaches us about how trust works in the economy.

Key points

  • Trust is inherently risky. Building trust builds cooperation between individuals, communities, and globally.
  • Trust begins with the family, but over the centuries, institutions extended trust first to villages then to countries, and the world.
  • Research shows both in modern and ancient times that trust causes prosperity and prosperity causes trust.

The new Disney movie, Raya and the Last the Dragon, is all about trust. The word trust is mentioned every few minutes—the theme song that plays over the credits mentions the word trust 25 times.

All of this was incredibly exciting to me while watching the movie with my kids the other day. Not only because I just wrote a book on the economics of trust (Why Trust Matters: an Economist's Guide to the Ties that Bind Us), but also because the message that we need to remember how to trust one another seems especially important in our increasingly divided times.

Most people would be surprised that an economist like me is interested in trust. Still, trust is actually at the heart of nearly every economic transaction, the basis of the economic institutions upon which the modern economy was built, and fundamental to some of the key economic innovations of the 21st century, namely blockchain and the sharing economy.

Here are some themes from the movie that tells us something about the economics of trust:

To trust is inherently risky behavior.

Trust is essentially risky
Source: Disney

Raya: I made a mistake. I trusted someone I shouldn’t have, and now the world’s broken.

The recurring theme throughout the movie is about how trust is dangerous. It’s hard to trust because trusting the wrong person can put us in peril or break the world, in Raya’s case. (A bit of a spoiler, but this happens in the first few minutes of the movie).

But we need that risk. Nearly every romantic comedy shares the theme that you need to be vulnerable to find love. In the same way, we need risk to build trust.

Economists use a game called the “trust game” to measure trust between students in a lab. Two economists, Falk and Kosfeld showed that when you put too many rules in that trust interaction, taking away too much of the risk, trust declines and cooperation fails.

And that’s a problem because cooperation is the point of trust. Working together, we can achieve so much more than working alone.

Giving and receiving gifts can facilitate trust.

Gifts can be the basis of trust.
Source: Disney

Sisu: We forgot to bring a gift for the Tail chief.
Raya: I’m sorry. A gift?
Sisu: Yeah. A gift says, “You can trust me, can I trust you?”

This scene resonated with me—bringing a gift when you visit is central to many of the Asian cultures upon which the movie is based—but it is also central to human civilization. Before there was money, pre-market economies were based on gifts. When I had more meat than I could eat myself after a hunt, I would gift it to you in the expectation that you would return the favor in the future. That exchange relies on trust, trusting the hunter you shared with to share with you when the opportunity arises.

Anthropologist Robin Dunbar finds that there is a natural limit in human social groups of 150 people.

He gets this number by comparing the sizes of primate brains and argues that 150 is based on the limit of how many people you can keep track of, how many people you can trust.

We developed money to keep track of who we owe favors to extend our sharing of favors beyond the people we have direct relationships with (we developed writing for the same reason).

This is most visible on the island of Yap, where they would roll giant stone coins to one another’s houses as reminders for favors owed, but it’s the same idea for all the money we use today.

Extending bonds of trust can help secure global relationships.

Trust can save the world
Source: Disney

Benja: [to Raya] Listen, if we don’t stop and learn to trust one another again, it’s only a matter of time before we tear each other apart. This isn’t the world I want you to live in.

The story of the movie is about Raya’s journey. In the beginning, she trusts no one, but by the end, she builds a new “family” of the friends she meets along the way, and by the end, learns to trust her country’s greatest enemy.

My book actually takes the same path. It follows humanity’s journey from our biological roots, impels us to trust the only family, or maybe the 150 people in our village or tribe. It then examines how the major institutional innovations of the past millennia have been about extending that trust to greater and greater numbers, to those who share the same religion, to those in the same merchant guilds, to those in the same kingdom or country.

Today, we are trying to extend those bonds of trust again, building trust across countries to solve some of the biggest problems our world has ever faced: the Paris Climate Accord to combat climate change is built almost entirely on trust.

Trust causes prosperity. Or does prosperity cause trust?

Trust causes prosperity (or does prosperity cause trust)
Source: Disney

Raya: The world’s broken. You can’t trust anyone.
Sisu: Maybe it’s broken because you don’t trust anyone. You just have to take the first step.

I loved this little exchange in the movie because one of my biggest peeves—the lesson I include in every class I teach—is that correlation is not necessarily causation. It’s a well-established correlation that prosperous countries are also countries that have a lot of trust. This has been shown both in the 20th century but also in ancient times.

The harder question is which caused what: does prosperity cause trust, or does trust cause prosperity. Through various statistical methods, researchers have concluded that it is the latter, trust, that causes prosperity.

I believe that trust not only causes prosperity but can solve the greatest problems of our time. I believe what the world needs now is more trust. Watching Raya and the Last Dragon was truly exciting because I am truly hopeful that a movie about a dragon can maybe move us one small step toward a more trusting future.

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