Weekly Column by Loretta Redd, PhD
If you were asked to fall backward into the arms of a stranger, would you trust them to catch you?
Each day, we are asked to take action, accept authority or align with beliefs based on the simple, but powerful human trait of trust. Where is trust engendered? How is it lost? And once lost, how can it be regained?
From Scientific American and other articles on physiology, we learn the neurobiology of trust lies within a molecular chemical known as ‘oxytocin.’ Released from our pituitary gland, in small amounts it induces feelings of good will during acts of social bonding like sharing a hug, to a spike in volume for women during labor and childbirth.
Oxytocin is sufficiently powerful for Scottish author George MacDonald to boldly declare, “To be trusted is a greater compliment than to be loved.” It is difficult to build, and easy to destroy. A powerfully simple booklet by Charles Feltman, titled “The Thin Book of Trust” defines it as “choosing to risk making something you value vulnerable to another person’s actions.”
But where there is trust, there is also distrust. Local author and ethicist, Jim Litchman, suggests that trust is greatly dependent on truth.
Though we can try to be honest, keep commitments, and offer oxytocin-releasing hugs of emotional support, divisions among people regarding ideas and beliefs will naturally create silos that cultivate distrust. In today’s society, we are invited, if not forced, to fall into the arms of a stranger called ‘the media,’ but can we trust them to provide us with the truth?
Is it true, as newspaper great Walter Lippman suggested, that “mass media is an ineffective method of public education.”
The competition for our precious attention span increases with every new means of sensory invasion from 900 cable stations, to endless information on the world-wide internet, to talk and satellite radio and every YouTube, TED and Skype video ever recorded.
Problem is, for the most part, we no longer trust any of it.
Reasons for mistrust and darkness abound on a global and national scale. In the content of one day’s news last weekend, the basis for our obliteration of our trust molecules becomes obvious:
Presidents killing their own people in the streets while denying the source of their protest; priests, physicians and teachers found to be sexual predators of our children; pink ribbon non-profits acting as shills for pink political punditry; bankers and financiers deceiving and stealing from its customers, only to turn to its victims for tax bailouts; politicians grandstanding through committee hearings created to support their own agendas, rather than to resolve anything; celebrities growing more ‘famous’ for dysfunction than for talent; candidates for the highest office changing their pitch and persona with every poll; companies selling fake pharmaceuticals and cancer treatments.
Our trust is further diminished when the perpetrators of so many illegal, immoral and unethical acts seem to suffer little of no consequence. It’s tempting to assume nowadays that accountability diminishes the further up the ladder of influence and responsibility one goes, until the damage done to our psyches and collective “public trust” seems almost irreparable.
Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche may have said it best, “I’m not upset that you lied to me. I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you.”
Much of what and whom we distrust is based on what happens to others, but much of what we fear is based on what could affect us personally. There is a strong link between distrust and fear, the instinctual sensation designed to offer us protection and safety.
The seat of fear lies in our amygala, a tiny part of the brain which is stimulated whenever real or perceived threat is encountered. It is the kick-off for the popularly named “fight or flight response” discovered by Dr. Hans Seyle, which now includes the option of “freeze.”
The media, faced with growing competition for readers and viewers, quickly recognized that keeping the public in a semi-state of panic would cause us to be hyper-vigilant, thereby consuming more of their product each day
It’s why ‘positive’ papers don’t sell very well, and why even though we say that we hate negative campaign ads, they are subconsciously effective in changing our vote. The old adage that ‘fear trumps logic,’ is connected to our very survival, and not likely to change any time soon.
But fear need not trump trust.
The four components of trust, as described by Feltman, are:
sincerity, or, “I mean what I say, say what I mean, and act accordingly.”
reliability, or “You can count on me to deliver what I promise.”
competence, or “I know I can do this. I don’t know if I can do that.”
care, or simply, “We’re in this together.”
If you, like I, have been suffering from a gradual erosion of trust, take some time to reflect on how that might be regained. Start small, local and personal. Consider trust in your own universe: your family, your friends, even your pets. Tell them, show them, hug them.
Then reflect on your customers, clients, where you shop, whose services you turn to, places you invest your precious time and limited resources. Social ties reduce morbidity and mortality, while social interactions reduce physiological stress, according to neurobiologist Dr. Paul Zak.
Finally, turn to your beliefs. Are they based on an ‘amygdada hijacking’ of fear and survival, or do they stimulate the production of oxytocin in your brain, leaving you ready to fall backward into the arms of a stranger. Credibility may be intellectual, but trust is visceral…listen carefully and instinctually… you’ll know who’s there to catch you.