The Trust Imperative

Human beings depend on trusting relationships, and suffer deeply when trust is broken
February 4, 2021 Updated: February 6, 2021

Almost anyone with an email account has heard from a Nigerian prince offering them millions to help them transfer some money.

And we’ve all heard stories of people—often friends or loved ones—falling for a phone scammer pretending to be a government agent asking for money or identity information.

And then there is the internet itself, the Wild West of deception where ads popping up in social media feeds and on legitimate websites promise deals on items that turn out to have been too good to be true.

We live in an era of dishonesty, when politicians let us down so often we take it for granted and companies promise their products will change our lives, which they never do. Those fast food burgers look nothing like the picture on the menu and even our egg cartons lie to us, showing happy chickens in open fields when the reality is closer to a concentration camp.

It is little wonder that people don’t give their trust as easily as they used to. According to a 2019 report measuring public trust since the 1950s, only 17 percent of Americans today say they can trust elected officials do what is right “just about always” (three percent) or “most of the time” (14 percent).

Compare that to when the study began asking about trust in 1958, where about three-quarters of Americans trusted the federal government to do the right thing almost always or most of the time.

Trust in everything from doctors, to retailers, to the pharmaceutical industry has fallen, and that has real consequences for our well-being.

You can’t see, touch, or taste trust, but you can definitely sense when you have it, and feel when you don’t.

This sense weaves the fabric of society together, and it unravels with suspicion and betrayal. We keep trusted companions close, and distance ourselves from those we believe untrustworthy.

We rely on our sense of trust to identify reliable, honest, and upfront people we can rely on without having to constantly question their motives or follow up every statement with an investigation.

Trust does more than make life easier, it makes it bearable.

But what happens when the bond of trust is broken. Research suggests it’s more than just a bother—it can be deeply traumatic.

Born to Trust

Why do we hold such strong feelings about trust? According to author and psychiatrist Dr. Peter Breggin, trust is a part of who we are as human beings, and has been since the very beginning.

“What makes human beings unique is our trust, mutuality, and our cooperation,” Breggin said. “When we took down a mammoth, it wasn’t because we had fangs, hooves to kick with, or thick hides to protect us. We did it because we cooperated. We trusted each other enough to watch our backs in a brawl with a giant beast.”

In a recent paper published in the American Psychological Association Journal, Breggin explains that our need for trust starts at birth. Unlike animals that can take on the world soon after they spring from the womb, humans are born very vulnerable and helpless. We depend on years of dedicated care and nurturing before we can make it on our own.

“There is such an intimacy and dependency that is built into human beings. A human being grows up with a huge need of feeling worthy of love,” Breggin said. “We have a huge need to trust somebody.”

This experience with parents lays a pattern that plays a major role later in life. We default to a trust that extends others in authority positions, such as politicians. This comes with a risk.

Because we hold trust in such high regard, deception can be devastating.

“That’s what destroys us,” Breggin said. “We revert to childhood helplessness, and that always gets us into trouble.”

Trust is so essential to our mental health that Breggin believes betrayal may be at the root of mental illness. Ask anyone who has been lied to or wronged by someone they trusted deeply: the experience can make you depressed and anxious. You begin to question reality and doubt yourself. Paranoia is an obvious manifestation, but psychosis can be a symptom, too.

“Whether it’s bipolar or schizophrenia … what’s really going on if you talk to the person who is hallucinating or lying in bed all day is that they feel like they can’t trust anything that’s going on around them in the world. And they feel utterly unlovable.”

Antipsychotic medication is the standard treatment for extreme cases, but Breggin believes drugs get in the way of his main objective: building trust. His treatment starts with a promise, one that many of his clients have never heard before: “Tell me anything you want and I’ll never drug you or force you into a hospital against your will.”

“I’m not a miracle worker, but very often about halfway through the conversation, I’ll say, ‘Do you know you’ve stopped looking at the hallucination on the ceiling. You stopped looking terrified.’ They’ll say, ‘This is the first break I’ve had in a month,’” Breggin said.

“I’ll say: ‘That’s because you’re trusting me. And we’re talking honestly about stuff. And if we can maintain that relationship, you’re going to grow and you’re going to get better.”

Too Trusting

Because of the pain that results when your trust is violated, one bad experience may tempt you to cut off everyone as a reflex of self-preservation. Why risk it? But Breggin warns that living without trust doesn’t make you objective, it just makes you paranoid.

It’s in our nature to trust, but because we live in a world of scams and mind games, we must also be careful not to blindly give it to any opportunist who asks for it.

Lynell Ross, a director of an online education company, said she learned this lesson the hard way. A few years ago, Ross was helping her sister through a difficult time in her life, but she found that her aid only seemed to create more tension.

“My sister became angrier and angrier at me but wouldn’t be honest about why. I kept helping her clean out her house, sell items, and look for a smaller place to downsize,” Ross said. “Later, I found out that she wanted to move in with my husband and I, but never asked us directly.”

Ross said the situation was so distressing she ended up in the emergency room thinking she was having a heart attack, a common experience for those who have had a panic attack.

Her cardiologist found nothing wrong, so Ross examined her feelings.

“I had been too trusting, and needed to learn the lesson to stop enabling her, and allow her to live with the consequences of her own behavior,” she said.

For Ross, her sister’s actions represented a form of manipulation. Playing the victim and using guilt to get an advantage are actions that can undermine the trust between two people.

The person carrying out this manipulation may not be entirely aware of their actions. Even these forms of deception, however, can destroy a relationship.

Changing Circumstances

We want to trust others. We crave the connection it brings. But since trust is such a sensitive issue, we may feel the sting of betrayal even when the other person meant us no harm.

Alex Montagu, a New York lawyer and certified meditation teacher, suggests that this confusion may make us too quick to label others untrustworthy.

“As a lawyer, I’ve seen a fair number of partnership disputes,” Montagu said. “Did the partners trust each other when they first entered into the partnership?  The answer in all cases is yes.  Was that trust merited? The answer invariably is yes. Then why the dispute? The answer is changed circumstances (or in some cases very misplaced expectations as to outcome, skill or performance).”

Montagu’s advice to avoid unmet expectations both in personal affairs and in business is to make the terms clear upfront. Clear communication can help us avoid the assumptions and expectations that can leave one feeling tricked or deceived.

Crumbling Public Trust

Communication and clarity help build trust, while secrecy and deception erode it. But when the details aren’t clear, we rely on experience and instinct to guide us in who to trust.

Unfortunately, this sense is only as good as our ability to read the signals and some people are very good at faking these signals. And then there is the way a warm smile and a pretty face telling us the words we want to hear can win our hearts. Such tactics can distract us from a gut feeling that may point to lies and deceit.

Authority figures are notorious for taking advantage of this. Propaganda is designed to capture public trust with an attractive image and bright promises, while managing to minimize or completely obscure the flaws that would give us a clearer picture. Scapegoats and fear can also be used to distract us from looking at the bigger picture and thinking things through. We should know better, but too often we don’t.

We’re conditioned to trust authority figures in a more intimate way than we may realize. Breggin said it’s well established in psychology that we grant authority to others on the same basis we gave it to our parents and caregivers when we were young. It’s an inborn process that comes from our early dependence.

“We have to be consciously aware that they are not our parents,” Breggin said.

While we teach our children to be wary of strangers, we ourselves may fall into this pattern without even realizing it.

And when that habit of trust in authority figures breaks, it’s significant and difficult to repair. The past year has damaged our trust in authorities even more significantly than the downward trend seen for decades. The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer reveals that the pandemic and economic crisis, as well as the global outcry over systemic racism, and political instability have led to “an epidemic of misinformation and widespread mistrust of societal institutions and leaders around the world.”

The media, which has fed this loss of trust with its never-ending negativity bias, has taken a huge hit in trust as well. Over the past century, our reliance on mainstream media as a trusted source for reliable information had grown strong and cozy. But the Edelman report shows that this relationship is crumbling. It found that 56 percent of Americans now agree with the statement that “journalists and reporters are purposely trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false or gross exaggerations, ” and that 58 percent think that “most news organizations are more concerned with supporting an ideology or political position than with informing the public.”

When Edelman re-polled Americans after the 2020 election, figures had deteriorated even further.

This loss of trust comes with severe consequences. Just consider what it means to live in a world in which you don’t trust the people and institutions that have power over significant aspects of your life. It is little wonder that depression and anxiety have risen in recent years.

Because trust has such a profound effect on our well-being, Breggin’s advice is to put less of it into some distant expert or authority, and more into those with whom you’re closest to. Strong relationships based on trust with those we interact with most often can give us a deeper sense of safety in an otherwise uncertain world.

“One of the things we can do is remind ourselves that we believe in a loving God, and that we can see evidence of that God in our lives,” Breggin said. “Another great help is to keep personal relationships of trust and love.”

It can be comforting to have someone you can rely on. But Breggin cautions us to be careful who we trust, because this bond is a sacred and intimate thing.

That doesn’t mean we have to be suspicious and fearful, but it does mean that we should be conscious about what authorities, institutions, and people we defer to without question.

Trust may often be inborn, but it should also be earned—and often verified.

Follow Conan on Twitter: @ConanMilner