Post No.: 0224
Good relationships are key for achieving happiness, and trust is probably the most important aspect of any kind of relationship – it’s more important than being attractive, funny and so on. Most relationship breakdowns boil down to issues of trust after a betrayal of some sort. Trust makes marriages and businesses work. It is paramount for cooperation or reconciliation. Trust or distrust can be culturally influenced – for instance, they can be founded upon media stories of scandals by national institutions or global corporations, and news environments that portray a fair representation of views versus those that are biased (whether there’s the freedom of the press or not e.g. state censorships or self-selected social media filter bubbles). Cooperation, apologising for mistakes, showing embarrassment, modesty and forgiveness are all about gaining or regaining trust. It should be no surprise to know that cultures where people tend to trust rather than distrust each other are happier. Woof!
The handshake gesture possibly originated to signal trust – the trust that the parties will act on each other’s best interests. The right kind of physical touch promotes trust and teamwork, hence a lot of high-fives, hugs and pats on the back in team sports. The language we use shapes our behaviours too. For instance, calling the prisoner’s dilemma game theory game ‘the Wall Street game’ or ‘the Community/Trust game’ makes a difference to whether people will play it more selfishly or cooperatively – therefore priming can affect our behaviours and levels of trust or distrust, and the language we use therefore matters. (The median response in ‘the Community/Trust game’ is that people tend to trust and cooperate with anonymous strangers – players are regularly willing to equitably share an equal size of the pot with the other player despite the risk of losing it all if the other player fails to reciprocate, suggesting that trust is as biologically innate as suspicion.) Even infants innately understand equity and will prefer to play with somebody who is equitable too, all else being equal.
In negotiations, spend a few minutes talking about each other’s values and interests first. Use fewer ‘I’ or ‘my’ statements and more ‘we’ or ‘our’ statements. Use non-aggressive body language and vocal tones and cooperative verbal and body language. Familiarity breeds trust too (read Post No.: 0126 to understand that it doesn’t actually normally breed contempt), as can threats of punishment against betrayals or frequent reminders of one’s obligations.
A decision to trust entails the risk of being exploited or betrayed, but when people trust, the trust is normally rewarded and reciprocated when the parties are looking for a long-term relationship, in either personal or business contexts. A community is typically overall better off when everyone trusts and is trustworthy. But a potential barrier to this is just about everyone is biased to think that they are, or their own group is, the trustworthy party and so it’s only a question of whether others can be trusted(!)
In many situations, selfish behaviours and free-riders mean we shouldn’t blindly trust another party (e.g. blindly trusting the sales patter of salespeople), but in reiterated games (or basically scenarios where we might meet and interact with the same people again and again in the future) we should always start with trust. In other experiments – even those involving strangers and one-off games – people still do mainly choose to trust, suggesting that trust is an evolved or learned instinct. We have a deeply-rooted ability and propensity to trust, which is in part expressed via our ‘truth bias’, where we trust others are telling the truth more often than they actually are. Although this means others will sometimes mislead us – this bias overall allows society and commerce to work efficiently. (This also shows that all biases evolved for a reason, even though they sometimes lead to (occasionally costly and/or highly predictable) errors, particularly in contexts that are different to the times, places and situations these biases mostly evolved during.)
The hormone oxytocin plays a key role in trust, bonding and reducing social anxiety. People can exploit this biological reaction though, not necessarily by directly spraying the chemical into people’s noses (although they could!) but indirectly by using, for instance, cute imagery (e.g. babies, kittens, puppies – ahem), smiling faces and warm handshakes or body contact. Oxytocin makes us feel loyal to our romantic partner at the exclusion of others. The hormone helps us to bond with and trust other people, such as our offspring, or fluffy pets, and makes us reject romantic competitors more harshly (so if you are e.g. a male, and a male friend’s girlfriend is never off his side and she seems a tad stand-offish towards you and other males, then it could be her very strong oxytocin bond with your friend at this stage of their relationship rather than anything personal against you or other males). But oxytocin also makes us poor winners and sore losers, and is strangely correlated with envy too!
Trust is therefore both cognitive (e.g. understanding the other party’s motivations, working out the likelihood or intentions of future interactions with the same person again) as well as hormonal/physiological in nature.
If lying to each other were such a successful strategy for humans evolutionarily, most people arguably wouldn’t find it hard to hide their body language ‘leaks’ from others i.e. humans generally haven’t evolved to innately lie very well to each other. Young children are very obvious when they lie, whilst adults are relatively better at concealing any lies, which suggests that becoming better at deceiving others is more of a practised rather than an inherent trait. And because humans didn’t evolve to find it easy to deceive others (most people in most contexts even instinctively feel that their own conscience is trying to tell them something doesn’t quite feel right when they try to lie to someone) – deceiving others must arguably not be, overall, the more successful survival strategy; at least for a social species like humans. There must be advantages for humans to be a social species, and how can a species be social if individual organisms of that species can’t or mustn’t trust each other? Why hang around non-kin if so? Why trust others if others aren’t generally trustworthy? And why be trustworthy if others won’t generally trust you even when you do tell the truth? So overall, humans must be trustworthy and trusting otherwise societies would disintegrate. (There may be a question though of how much religion and/or law plays a role too?)
Humans arguably didn’t evolve to read lies very well either though, but this would also support the theory that humans evolved to be naturally better co-operators than liars because the species hasn’t had to protect itself from lies so much to need to evolve to be inherently great at detecting lies (in a way that humans needed to evolve keen senses to detect faces and even the slightest movements in the environment for the sake of the specie’s survival. Now ‘need to evolve to survive’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘will evolve to survive’ though, since a species can alternatively become extinct as a result of its limitations (in this case, the limited ability of humans to reliably detect lies) – but humans evidently aren’t extinct yet, thus the ability of humans to detect lies is sufficient even though it’s hardly perfect).
However, the environment is changing, and fast – for example, there are fewer face-to-face engagements conducted compared to a rising number of anonymous engagements nowadays due to modern online technologies (such as dating apps), which allow deception to be conducted more easily. So we must be more wary and trained at detecting deception nowadays, particularly in commercial contexts. People can somewhat learn and practise to become great liars and/or detectors of lies, and there’ll always be this deception, counter-deception and counter-counter-deception, etc. pattern, but we cannot reliably depend on our evolved instincts here. We must adapt to become better detectors of lies via learning and experience. (Maybe we should, for a moral or simply better life, aim to do more than just ‘what is merely sufficient for survival’ anyway?)
A stable, healthy, long-term relationship is about non-zero-sum win-win scenarios, not zero-sum win-lose or lose-win sets of outcomes. (Non-zero-sum outcomes include lose-lose scenarios too but no rational party should seek these.) Building trust involves lots of very small moments where there’s a possibility of connecting with another party or turning away from them, and where one decides most of the time to connect. In a romantic relationship, one must attune with the other person – the awareness of your partner’s emotions, tuning into their emotions, trying to understand your partner, tolerating two different viewpoints, giving non-defensive responses and responding with empathy, are key. The opposite is thinking that you can do better than them or this, thus turning away, de-investing/de-committing from the relationship, trashing them and building resentment rather than gratitude or cherishing them. People in the latter situation will start to think of the alternatives to the relationship (although if they see no realistically better alternative yet fear being alone, they will likely stay in an unsatisfying relationship than be alone, for better or worse depending on whether abuse or neglect are involved or not).
Trust is better fostered in places of freer trade, freer movement of labour, the rule of law, public tolerance, a formal equality of political rights and fewer barriers to equality. Low trust is correlated with high inequity, less charity or philanthropy, a smaller voter turnout, greater crime levels and division, lower health and happiness levels, shorter life spans, lower academic achievement, lower community spirit and less involvement in the community by parents and schools. Countries with effective governments that enforce the rule of laws and regulations, control corruption and spend more on health care and less on the military, are correlated with having more life satisfaction – thus a confidence and trust in one’s government, political stability and low conflict or violence are important for happiness.
Betrayals hurt so much because it’s as if one’s entire worldview has been proven false and we’ve been gullible to trust someone or something that we shouldn’t have. It makes us become hyper-vigilant, and not only of betrayal but of anyone and anything else in a destructive way, meaning that a lot of distrust then becomes misplaced (e.g. reading any ambiguous cue as a reason for not trusting someone or simply not giving anyone a chance – we now become too cautious and distrusting), which can lead to isolation, lost opportunities and the knock-on effects of these. This is why one must learn to trust again in order to be happy and fully functioning again.
Woof! Trust is the expectation that other people’s future actions will safeguard our interests, which when honoured, creates mutual cooperation between individuals and in turn benefits the community collectively. Without trust we are weaker because with trust, and in turn cooperation, we become greater together than the mere sum of our individual parts!