Dave Pollard: What Makes Us Trust Someone…

How To Save The World

Trust is an essential requirement for an effective, functional community. Our modern, anonymous neighbourhoods provide none of the prerequisites for trust, and hence can never be true communities. In our search for community, many of us reach out instead to those outside our neighbourhoods, looking for support, or reassurance, or knowledge, or partners, or just company. But what is it that makes us trust, or distrust, someone? Is trust something that must be earned, or is it implicit, and can only be destroyed and lost?

Much has been written lately on this subject. Many would argue that trust is something that grows with mutual knowledge, openness, and sharing. I think that’s true to some extent but I believe trust is much more primal than that. It surely predated language. It is evident in non-humans who do not use language as we do, and whose social networks are not established the way ours are. Watch two dogs meeting for the first time and you’ll see what underlies the establishment and building or destruction of trust. We are, after all, much more than our minds, and our minds, I would argue, play a relatively minor role in the establishment of trust. Here’s how I think it works, based on my own observation of creatures human and non:

  1. As Keith Johnstone explains in Impro, when we first meet someone, before a word is spoken, our whole bodies are sending and receiving signals, largely unconsciously, to and from the other person. Our processing of those signals is also largely unconscious, as our conscious minds generally tend to rationalize and/or second-guess, rather than create, our immediate impression of another person, including their trustworthiness. This is an obvious evolutionary process: Facing an unknown creature in the wild, having to rely on our slow thought processes, or on conversation with them, could prove fatal. Instead we use sensory and chemical clues: Eye movements, facial expressions, pheromones and other chemical signals, whole-body stances, postures and movements, and tone of voice. When we “meet” someone virtually, online, we struggle with the shortage of such clues, over-relying on the few that are available, and trying to suspend judgement until we have more.
  2. Once these chemical and sensory signals have been processed, we can build (or destroy) trust through getting to know them intellectually. In this second stage of trust-building, what we are seeking, I think, is either a shared worldview, or alternatively one that we can appreciate (i.e. understand it well enough to have a sense of (a) what the other person thinks is “true”, and why s/he thinks so, (b) what principles the other person believes in (what is “good” or “fair”), and (c) as a consequence, what that person is likely to do in any given situation. Once we think we know how someone will behave in a situation, we can trust them — they are unlikely to surprise us. What’s important is not agreeing with their actions but “knowing” them well enough to predict those actions.
  3. A third level of trust-building occurs when our instinctive/sensory/chemical sense of someone’s trustworthiness, and our intellectual knowledge/appreciation of them, is tested through actual collaboration — shared experiences, especially of mutual reliance or co-dependence. If their actions during these experiences conform with our positive intuitive and intellectual expectations, there is likely to be a strong bond of trust formed, as all three types of “evidence” indicate the person is trustworthy. I would argue that if there is an absence of sensory/chemical or intellectual basis for trust, positive collaborative experiences alone will not be enough — there will be lingering doubts about what motivated the other’s behaviour in these experiences (a desire just to please, or to create a false sense of confidence, for example).

The destruction of trust can occur the same way, except in reverse. Have some bad collaborative experiences with someone you thought you knew and could trust, and you’ll be suspicious and disappointed, but still probably have faith that it was an aberration — after all, your instincts have told you they’re trustworthy, and you think you “know” them well enough to believe they wouldn’t normally do that. You’ll probably give them another chance, and only if you’re disappointed again will you conclude you didn’t really know them as well as you thought, and that they can’t be trusted.

Likewise, if you get into a discussion or situation that reveals that that person’s worldview — their sense of what is, and why it is that way, or their sense of what’s good or fair, is very different from what you supposed, and you’ll suspect they’re facile, or erratic, or dishonest, or even psychotic, and whatever trust you might have built between you will be destroyed.

If something should occur that changes the basic sensory or chemical signals you give off to that other person, or they send to you, then the degree of intellectual appreciation and positive shared experience you have between you can quickly become moot. You may never know what happened — it may be something that happened to you that has nothing to do with the other person, or vice versa — but somehow you just “know” that the trust you built between you is gone, and rebuilding it, through no one’s fault, will be enormously difficult.

That’s my sense of what underlies, builds and destroys trust, anyway. I tend to be more tuned in to my instincts than most people, and to trust them more than most, so perhaps my perceptions of trust are different from others’. But trust is so important, and will become much more so as we face mounting crises in the coming decades that will require us to re-create local community and to trust those in our communities. We need to know what that will entail, and the challenges building trust will present.

One Comment

I think it was Jon Kabat-Zinn, but it is so long now I forget, but I am sure whoever said it for my hearing won’t mind the lack of attribution. This teacher asked, what is the sense in trusting someone who lacks self knowledge? Such people are like the stick in the hand of an assailant. One does not get angry with, or trust, a stick. The idea I think is that those who do have such knowledge can have agency, can be held responsible for their actions and do deserve our anger. But with our Obsessive Compulsive culture, not only are self aware folks rare, but they need not be involved in generating the effects of a system gone berserk. The system itself, all aspects of its seamless web, acts like Arnold’s employers, SKYNET, in his silly movie. It has developed the emergent feature of parasitizing our species in order to grow to the point of physical collapse. In Fredy Perlman’s book Against His-Story, Against Leviathan! he uses the metaphor of aggressive hierarchical organizations as virtual organisms that prey upon and incorporate humans into their structures and have drives distinct from those people. An army is the simplest example. The founders were very wise to fear a standing army.

Another aspect of the fear and loathing associated with our current decline in mutual trust is our need to personalize our enemy in human form. But these organizations are not people. Corporations are not people, but they do compete with humans for vital resources. Brain damaged and brain deformed people are particularly useful to these monsters in our midst. Sociopaths, Aspberger’s, addicts, the emotionally mutilated, all find uses in the world of the Leviathan. Insensate cogs in the machinery of general destruction.

The answer is to stop depending on these entities and start learning to depend on each other as we weave intricate webs of mutual support that are too rugged to destroy. Not Libertarian radical self sufficiency, which always degrades into totalitarian oppression, but cooperation and mutual support as the source of sufficiency. Radical mutual aid in resistance! Trust is a byproduct of this web of life. Trust in our insane world of one against all is an oxymoron. People driven by ideology are the political equivalent of zombies, regardless of the ideology. Ideology itself destroys trust. What does one need ideology for anyway? Or hierarchy? We need to cut all that out of the loop and resist by getting to know each other by creating webs of mutual dependence that extend beyond blood relations to incorporate enough folks to be a mass phenomenon. Once we have accomplished that we can begin to think about confronting these virtual monsters that devour us.

Trust can be formed in an instant, as in many disasters, explored in A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster by Rebecca Solnit. Trust can evaporate in response to terror. Trust is derivative of the conditions people find themselves in. In war there is a trust vacuum.

Several other sources I have read are germane. Trantor’s The Collapse of Complex Societies; Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail Or Succeed by Jared Diamond; The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett; Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert D. Putnam; The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead by David Callahan, and always in fondness; Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution by Peter Kropotkin.