Saturday, April 05, 2008

Who do you trust?

Do you trust your husband? Your wife? Your children? Your parents? Your siblings? Your friends? Your colleagues? Your acquaintances? The politicians representing you at local, regional and national levels? Religious leaders? The immigrant speaking with a foreign accent and wearing those strange clothes?

Why do you trust or distrust these people?

Who trusts you?

These are difficult questions, not just because we need to clarify the meaning of the word "trust" to answer the questions (something that is usually required for any intelligent conversation), but because the answers require deep thought, honesty, and admittedly some anguish.

We may find, for instance, that someone whom we ought to trust actually measures up quite poorly on the trust-o-meter. Or we may find that we have artificially ranked someone as trustworthy on the basis of wish fulfillment more than actual performance.

An example of the former occurred to me recently when I discovered that someone whom I trusted implicitly was saying very hurtful things about me and offering unfounded opinions about my lack of integrity to someone else. When I challenged the individual, I had the distinct impression that they thought I was making more of the issue than it warranted. Unfortunately, since that time, as I've monitored the situation, I've confirmed that my original trust was unjustified. Not only did the person say hurtful things, but they have since clearly demonstrated little understanding or appreciation of things that are meaningful and important to me.

An example of the latter is the typical situation most men face when they belong to a group, a team, or an association. I say men, because some research has validated the gender difference in establishing trust in social situations, men being inclined to establish trust on the basis of symbolic associations, women more inclined to personal and family relationships. Men tend to value being members of a group, whereas women tend to value more highly the personal connections they have established directly with other people.

The situation of wish-fulfillment for men can occur when there is a disconnect between the symbolism implicit in the group and the actual functioning of the group. If you are anything like me, then you tend towards loyalty to the group as an almost instinctive behaviour. And then something happens which makes it clear that the symbol was not nearly as important as you had hoped.

The point of all this is not that it should surprise anyone that trust is critical for almost all of us, but that trust can be destroyed in an instant or the realization occur that there wasn't any justification for trust in the first place.

Trust requires finally balancing those two parts of the human brain that appear to work in completely different ways. One part is instinctive, the kind of mechanism described by Malcolm Gladwell in Blink. Here we realize that trust can happen in an instant (or be lost in the blink of an eye), usually for reasons that make sense in evolutionary terms. We look someone in the eye or observe behaviour which confirms or denies the possibility of trust. We can't ignore those intuitions, but they can be fallible.

The second part is more rational and deliberative. Here we find ourselves thinking and reflecting about evidence for trust, outside those fleeting impressions. But again, such deliberation isn't necessarily less fallible. The whole point of men having a slightly more symbolic approach to establishing trust suggests that the deliberative mind can be seduced almost as easily as the instinctive mind, merely by floating the right symbol or icon at the right time and place. What we thought was thinking turns out to be the magnetic appeal of the symbol.

But if experience tells me anything about these bicameral features of the human brain and the nature of trust it's this - don't trust either one fully. Or to put it more positively - trust both equally well. The other thing experience tells me about trust is almost too obvious to even mention; namely, there is no substitute for time, observation, and keeping tabs. Trust me...I know what I'm talking about.

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