• PublishedMarch 5, 2014

On any given day I put various aspects of my life, and in some cases my entire life, in the hands of at least 16.5 people, some of who are complete strangers. Confused? Here’s the fudgy math I used to come to this conclusion.

I wake up in the morning to begin my workday. While I listen to the news and weather reports on TV, I trust that the news and weather crew (+5) are relaying accurate information to me before I step out. If the weatherman states it is 15°C outside when it’s actually -15°C, or if the news crew don’t happen to report the troupe of rabid chimpanzees causing havoc in my neighborhood, well then in either case I’d be upset, at the very least, or at the worst, in danger.

On the way to work I trust the subway conductor (+1), to get me to my destination on time and in one piece assuming that he did not in fact stay up all night drinking whiskey. I trust the local barista (+1) to sell fresh, poison free coffee and mold free muffins. I trust my boss (+1) to do his job, so I can do mine, and trust that as a result my paycheck will arrive, on time, in full, in my bank account.

I trust my doctor (+1) to inform me if my scans show a watermelon size tumor growing in my brain. I trust my friends to keep my terrible secrets (+5), my partner to stay committed (+1), my landlord to keep the heat on (+1), and my neighbor’s dog to great me with her irresistible doggie grin and tail wagging (+0.5).

Hence, 16.5 people. Minimum. What’s your count looking like?

Policemen, politicians, teachers, bankers, farmers, nurses, chefs, bus drivers, you name them; we rely on them. Because they, in some way, shape or form, are able to satisfy any one of our needs we can’t meet on our own, or obtain the outcomes we desire. Unfortunately, given our humanity this happens to account for a whole lot of what we want and need to survive and thrive. So we make snap decisions on whether or not we can trust them, whether or not we can trust you, whoever you claim to be. Or we take our time gathering information, seeking references, or debating endlessly between our gut and our intellect. Very often we don’t really have much of a choice; how else are you going to make the trip to London?

You/me/them/all of us are vulnerable. When we choose to trust we expose this terrifying vulnerability and put ourselves at risk – that medicine you’re offering me could be rat poison. When we choose not to trust we may put ourselves in even more risk – without it my heart could explode any second now. It’s always a gamble, ongoing bets that may or may not entail significant consequences, possible life or death decisions we don’t even know we’re making.

It’s easy to take trust for granted, to undermine its importance, overstate our self-reliance, or simply feign ignorance to how much we simply need to trust. At its base trust is about the balance between two dynamic and often opposing desires  – a desire for someone else to meet your needs and his/her desires to meet their own. It’s like a never-ending mental and emotional Ping-Pong match with the ball representing a juxtaposition of both of our lives. Soft, gentle lobs back and forth make for a smooth, peaceful game. But what if you suddenly smash one across the net, catching me off guard and ill-prepared? What if you’re stealthily gaming my mind, manipulating me into a puddle of raw nakedness. What if?

There in lies the game of trust – what if…? So we protect ourselves from the ‘what ifs’ by taking on a tit-for-tat strategy. You cross me in anyway, whether intentional or not, and I will be right back at you buddy. Which may very well work for a while, as we both soon become clear on our expectations for each other. But in the long run we both loose out. We tend to focus on the cost of trust, the risk of losing something or being hurt, which can be extraordinarily high. Yet, the risk of mistrust, what we fail to gain through cooperation and transparency is, all too often, even greater. Not to mention the fact that tit-for-tat, though seemingly intuitive, takes work and thankless energy. You have to constantly monitor my actions, read between the lines of my communication, decipher words and eye twitches, trying to become the first human being certifiably capable of fortune telling. Good luck with that.

You/we/I/all of us do have another option – trust.

According to David DeSteno, director of Northeastern University’s Social Emotions Lab, and author of The Truth About Trust: How It Determines Success in Life, Love, Learning, and More, “Our minds didn’t evolve in a social vacuum. Humans evolved in social groups, and that means that the minds of our ancestors were sculpted by the challenges posed by living with others on whom they depended. Chief among those challenges was the need to solve dilemmas of trust correctly. And it’s precisely because of this fact that the human mind constantly tries to ascertain the trustworthiness of others while also weighing the need to be trustworthy itself. Your conscious experience may not correspond with this fact, but again that’s because much of the relevant computations are automatic and take place outside of awareness.”

So over time we’ve developed shortcuts, learned to read certain cues to ascertain trustworthiness. We look for resemblance (to ourselves), consistency, eye contact, confidence, competence and posture, to name a few. We’ve developed methods of identification, uniforms, titles, certificates, and a myriad of scoring systems, all to help us quickly and accurately measure risk and make decisions. Don’t forget, human beings are fundamentally risk adverse, the closer we perceive we are to certainty the better we feel.

But nothing is certain, until we can read minds and predict intention (as opposed to behavior) there will never be a foolproof code to unlock trustworthiness. Selfishness and cooperation, disloyalty and commitment, will always exist in an ever-changing equilibrium.

And then there is unspoken, perhaps most pivotally, uncomfortably issue of trusting ourselves. Oh boy, where do we even begin…?

“Although it’s true that cooperation and vulnerability require two parties, no one ever said that the two parties had to be different people. To the contrary, the parties can be the same person at different times. Can the present you, trust the future you, not to cheat on your diet by bingeing on chocolate cake? Not to cheat on an exam? Not to cheat on your spouse? Not to go gambling again?” argues David DeSteno in his book.

 You may declare ‘Yes, of course!’ But what if…? As conscious, astonishingly complex beings, we look and observe inwardly with the same fervor and analysis as we do outwardly. And often, as I’ve mentioned in the past when talking about suffering and anxiety, the minefield we observe inside is more treacherous than the missiles launched at us externally. As eloquently put by writer Maria Popova, “Trust defines our relationship with ourselves — the quality of the inward gaze and the tangle of dignity, anxiety, uncertainty, and conviction with which we hold it.”

So what then? How does one achieve maximum success with minimal risk? You don’t. You trust and get heartbroken, ripped apart and defeated. You erect a fortress and miss out on love, wealth and the joy of living. You take notes, learn your lessons, and repeat many of the same mistakes over and over again. You gamble and loose until you gamble and win. Because you will win and you will loose. Which side of the coin you land on may all boil down to how you choose to answer one very simple question – what if…?

Published on March 2014

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