The Trust Imperative

February 5, 2021

Human beings depend on trusting relationships, and suffer deeply when trust is broken.

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.

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