Emotional and social trust: Faith in others can improve government and policy.

When I Wrote a Book About Trust, Strangers Kept Telling Me Their Secrets

When I Wrote a Book About Trust, Strangers Kept Telling Me Their Secrets

The state of the universe.
Sept. 25 2014 9:09 AM

Trust Me

What I learned about the emotional side of our faith in others.

Photo by Lucas Jackson/Reuters
Want to see civic connection in action? Go to the dog park.

Photo by Lucas Jackson/Reuters

When I told people I was working on a book about our faith in others, they sometimes seemed to think I was an aspiring self-help guru. Strangers would confess to me about the times that they lost—or gained—the faith of others.

One woman explained to me over drinks how she met her first husband. As I remember the story, she met the man on an airplane, and after the flight, he drove her to her home. (They later divorced.) At a birthday party, a man told me about the time that he got scammed in New York City and lost a large sum of money. Another man revealed to me that his wife had had an affair. A "personal betrayal," he called it.

I often didn't know how to respond to these stories. Sure, I was writing a book on trust. But I didn't know much about the often emotional, deeply personal nature of our faith in others, and I certainly wasn't interested in becoming the Deepak Chopra or Tony Robbins of trust. I was more focused on what sociologists call social trust, or the degree to which we place our faith in people that we don't know. But all this spontaneous sharing made me think more deeply about the nature of our faith in others.

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I'm not the first person to get tripped up on the various notions of trust, and there's a long-standing debate over how exactly to define the term. But what's clear is that other writers on our faith in others have also tried to distance themselves from the self-help crowd. In his excellent book Liars and Outliers, for instance, security expert Bruce Schneier makes clear that he has little interest in more "intimate" forms of trust. "I'm not really concerned about how specific people come to trust other specific people," he writes. For Schneier, what matters is what's known as "impersonal trust." Or as he argues, he is in a way "reducing trust to consistency or predictability."

Schneier's argument makes sense because when we trust someone, there's always the potential for betrayal. There's always the possibility of duplicity, and that means that our faith in others requires strong logic and plain reason. No one, as Schneier and others have pointed out, should mindlessly place their faith in other people.

But over time, I realized that I should not be so skeptical of the more personal aspects of our faith in others. After talking with various researchers and reading all sorts of books and articles, I came to learn that even some of the most seemingly unemotional forms of trust can be deeply emotional. In other words, policymakers who want to improve our faith in others should take a page from the self-help crowd and do more to build a sense of social intimacy and promote what neuroeconomist Paul Zak once called the "empathic human connection."

This is clear in the research on trust. As legal scholar Yochai Benkler has argued, a personal bond—or what he calls "humanization"—can foster a sense of cooperation. When we feel a social connection with people, we're more likely to work with them. Consider a study by economists Gary Charness and Uri Gneezy. In one behavioral-economics experiment—known as the dictator game—the economists showed that people were more generous toward a stranger if they knew his or her last name.

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I've seen this in my own life, too. Soon after I began my book, I followed the advice of Robert Putnam, who argued for greater civic involvement in his book Bowling Alone, and I joined a pick-up basketball league. Later, I began volunteering in a homeless shelter. Both activities helped me develop a greater sense of community, a better understanding of other people. The experiences didn't make me trust everyone, of course. But it did give me a richer sense of perspective.

But my favorite example of the emotional aspect of seemingly unemotional types of trust is one that I write about in my book. We often believe that trust in government is all about accountability and good governance, about honesty and performance, and when people discuss low trust in Washington, they'll mention congressional shutdowns or the shaky roll-out of the Obamacare website. But it's not quite so simple. Our emotions, our sense of patriotism, can also play a crucial role, according to researchers. The events of 9/11 led to a twofold increase in the percentage of people who had faith in Washington to do the right thing.

The broader implications of this idea are significant. To solve pressing social and political problems, we need to do more than just address the problem itself. We also have to address the emotional side of our divisions, to do more to bring us together as a society, and even experts on impersonal trust raise this point. In his work, for instance, Schneier recommends greater levels of "empathy and community." As he notes, "even though our informal social pressures fade into the background, they're still responsible for most of the cooperation in society."

Efforts at improving social cohesion don't have to cost a lot of money. They don't have to be complicated. In my book, I give the example of Rick Baker, former mayor of St. Petersburg, Florida, who fostered civic connections by constructing dog parks. There's also the former mayor of Bogota, Colombia, Antanas Mockus, whom Zak discusses in his work (and I touch upon in mine). Mockus improved the city's sense of civic unity, according to Zak, by establishing initiatives like a "Night for Women," a sort of city-wide festival for "wives and mothers." Or take Portland Mayor Bud Clark. He had a "weekly brown-bag lunch date" in the 1980s. There were no restrictions on who could attend the weekly luncheons, according to news accounts. Residents just had to ring up Clark's office.

In the end, I still don't have marriage advice. I still don't have dating tips. But I have learned that trust is often deeply emotional, something highly personal. As academics David Lewis and Andrew Weigert once argued, trust is a "mix of feeling and rational thinking," and it's that feeling—that raw, emotional sense of social togetherness—that as a society, we need to try and foster.

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