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Notes from a flaming moderate

Who Can You Trust?

Who you gonna trust, me or your lyin’ eyes?


When journalist Eric Weiner traveled the world to discover what made some countries happier places than others, he found one primary common denominator among the happiest. The essential ingredient was trust. The happiest countries are those in which people feel they can trust their government, trust social institutions, and trust their neighbors (see The Geography of Bliss, by Eric Weiner).

Trust should be easy. We do it every day. We trust the other drivers on the road to stop when their light turns red. We trust that the author, reporter, expert and correspondent whose work we read is giving us truth about the world as it is, and how it's likely to be. We relax in that trust and feel informed...that is, until a fact checker comes along who challenges some part of the official version. Politicians not completely trustworthy? We've learned to live with that. So we've come to rely on the insights and forecasts of experts...until a master researcher like Phillip Tetlock demonstrates that the predictions of "experts" are about as correct as chance. Moreover, with regard to media experts and opinionizers, the more confident an expert seems (Rush Limbaugh, anyone?), the more convincing he is, and the less likely he is to be correct.

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Preachers and teachers lost our trust long ago in a landslide of scandal, sexual and financial. And while we're on the subject of financial, the very idea of trusting in banks and financial institutions would be hilarious if it didn't hurt so much to laugh.

Okay, don't trust public experts, politicians or news reporters, religious or corporate leaders. But we can trust the people we know, can't we? And as a society we do, and we marry - many of us still do, over and over again - trusting love and desire alone to keep us together, divorce statistics notwithstanding.

Let down by lovers, frustrated by public officials, "spun" by historians, analysts and authors, at least we know there's one person we can trust...ourselves. That's what Albert Einstein apparently thought when he said, "The only source of knowledge is experience." The quote sounds good; it's rather flattering to our individual ego, and it speaks to our cultural belief in self-reliance. We know we can trust ourselves...or can we? To trust one's experience is to trust one's memory, and here's some of what we know about that:

Memory is a lot more like imagination than it is like a computer. When we think about our personal past we are less likely to be dredging up what actually happened, and more likely to be reconstructing fragments of what we experienced with what we've thought or been told into a narrative driven by self-justification, and the avoidance of cognitive dissonance. The reconstruction is mixed in a brew of our current mood and beliefs - and that's what we remember. Memory of personal history is not alone in its untrustworthiness. Research in eyewitness testimony demonstrates quite dramatically that false information becomes integrated into our memory with breathtaking ease and convincingly eclipses what the witness actually saw. We can't even trust our feelings to guide us regarding the veracity of our memories! Duke University neuroscientists have found that depending on which part of the brain is accessed in memory retrieval, people can either feel confident and remember accurately, or feel equally confident in memories that turn out to be false.

So neither memory nor feelings of confidence can be wholly trusted. Digging deeper into more elemental levels of experience, can we trust our perceptions? Hardly. I refer you to the art of M.C. Escher or your introductory psychology course to be reminded about the tricks our eyes play on us.

If we can't fully trust our lyin' eyes - or our memory or feelings or judgment, then the only thing left is bare sensation. Can we even trust the experience of our bodies? Sorry, not necessarily.

A group of Swedish brain scientists performed a series of experiments in which they got healthy volunteers to experience having 3 arms! A subject was seated with her arms on a table with a realistic prosthetic arm placed next to her right arm. The subject could look at the 3 arms. The researcher then touched the subject's right hand and the rubber hand with two small brushes at corresponding locations in a synchronized way, and the subjects reported experiencing having an extra third arm! To verify the subjects' verbal report, the scientist "threatened" either the prosthetic hand or the real hand with a kitchen knife and measured the subjects' physiological stress response (palm sweating - on their real palms, in case you're wondering). When they had the third arm illusion, subjects showed the same stress response when their prosthetic hand was threatened as they did to a threat to their real hand. How did this happen?

Arvid Guterstam, one of the researchers, suggested that the simultaneous sensory stimulation of the two right arms in the subject's vision presented a conflict to the brain. Struggling to figure out which right hand belonged to the person, the brain embraced both as part of the individual's body image. The subjects experienced having an extra third arm; something they knew was impossible and was clearly not true. But it truly felt real.

When reality is so fluid and malleable that human beings can experience their very bodies to be absurd - three arms! - How is trust ever possible?

It will take much more than a blogpost to explore that worthy question. In the meantime, these tips might help.

1. Be trustworthy.
A great deal of what we find in the world is a projection of ourselves. Think about that.

2. Consider the possibility that you may be wrong.
The ancients called it humility. Today we might refer to it as consciousness of our cognitive biases and the part they play in creating our reality.

3. Be prepared to be surprised.

 

Renee Garfinkel, Ph.D., is affiliated with the Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management at the George Washington University.

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