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Mature and realistic trust

In the woods with owls
In the woods with owls

The topic of trust has been popular lately. We’ve looked at it in the past but let’s return to it.

“Trust” refers to my belief that another person will act in my interests.

It’s often used as a synonym for “rely” or “believe” but that isn’t quite right.

Believing what another says and being able to predict his/her actions are usually elements of trust.

If the other person conceals information, I have to assume that he's lying for a reason that is probably to his advantage and to my disadvantage.

Similarly, if his behavior is erratic then he is hard to trust. If I have no idea what he will do next then I cannot assume that he will help me.

Trust is still a wild, radical leap. To the extent that humans are animals, living in a world of finite resources necessary for survival, the idea that one will act to benefit another is amazing.

Trust, and the cooperative relationships that rely it, is one of those bridges on which humans move away from being merely animals.

The nature of trust changes over the course of a lifetime. No psychologist has yet posited a series of stages of trust, so if you are a psychologist and looking to collaborate on a model, please contact this Examiner.

With respect to Piaget, who did a little work in this area, here’s how trust seems to develop.

As babies, we were squirming bundles of needs, able only to scream, so we did. We screamed to say things like, “I’m hungry” or “I’m wet.”

If we were lucky then someone responded, identified the need, met it. We learned that the world was a safe and predictable place, according to Piaget.

Unfortunately, we also learned that we were the center of the world.

If we were really lucky then, a few years later, adults demanded that we express our needs in clear and polite terms, first. We had to ante up. The world wasn’t all about us.

There are a lot of personality disorders in which this real-world dynamic is absent.

A narcissist always expects the best of everything, at your expense if necessary. A sociopath takes what he wants without regard for you. A borderline feels completely rejected in response to refusal or even hesitation in the face of a need, demanding perfection and calling you untrustworthy if you are helpful only 99% of the time.

TIME Magazine ran an article about this, in the September 1, 2014 issue.

In each case, if you don’t give this person what s/he wants then you will see an infantile tantrum conducted with adult power. It’s irrational and scary.

Most of us, though, learn that we can get what we want, predictably, but only by offering what another wants. We make a trade.

Later, we find that we can’t unilaterally initiate a deal by making an offer. If Sony isn’t hiring video-game testers then your resume is irrelevant. Your favorite actress already has a boyfriend – sorry.

We also learn that some others will take our ante without giving us what we expect in return. They will cheat us.

When we combine the pain of being cheated with the abstract cognitive skills needed for empathy, the ability to imagine another’s perspective, then we can see who has interests that conflict with ours.

If I interview for a job, I’m likely to meet other candidates in the waiting room. Civility is a reasonable expectation – don’t insult me or lie to me about the interview being cancelled - but trust?

If I’m acting in the interests of another candidate then I should refuse or deliberately ruin the interview. If she is acting in my interests then she should do that for me.

That's not going to happen. Does it mean that the company can't trust any of the candidates?

We tend to treat trustworthiness as a personality trait but that is immature and lazy. We pin others as "good" or "bad" and stop interacting with them as they really are.

However, trust is much more situational.

Is an attorney trustworthy? A good attorney is completely trustworthy in interactions with his client and completely, but predictably, not trustworthy in interactions with his client's opponent.

Here's a good example of predictability and trust diverging. The attorney consistently represents your opponent's interests, not yours.

However, if your interests coincide on a given point - say, agreeing to delay a hearing because of severe weather - then it might make sense, in that solitary and narrow circumstance, to trust your opponent's attorney.

A mature understanding of trust does not expect trustworthiness of anyone who is clearly competing with us. That’s setting another up to offend and ourselves up to be offended.

That doesn't justify another person harming you, but the goal is avoiding unnecessary pain, unnecessary conflict, by living in the world as it really is and improving it, slightly, by living in ways that don't transmit pain and conflict.

You can be the domino that slips off to the side when the others start to fall. You can't stop the falling but you don't have to fall or to knock over someone else.

We realize that we can create trusting environments by reducing competition, typically by changing the perception that resources are scarce. We can reject the myth of the rat race.

The need for survival is hard-wired and permanent but we can put a layer of bubble wrap on the sharp and brittle edges, cushion the dynamics, free ourselves and others from the need to win to survive.

When we think that there is enough then we’re not afraid and we can consider the interests of others. When we understand the perspectives of others then we know who to trust under what conditions.

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