Parents know that one of the most wonderful experiences of parenthood is witnessing one’s infant discovering his or her fingers. The baby gazes intently at his or her fingers moving in space. We can only imagine what curious thoughts the baby entertains: “Could it be that they belong to me and that I can make them obey me?” Moving, tasting, grasping, pushing and pulling are all extensions of one’s mind into the world, into reality. Throughout our lives we test what we know about reality first by seeing and then by touching. When input is contradictory, as with optical illusions, visual dominance often occurs, with seeing believed over our other senses. In some situations interacting with the environment resolves the conflict. The system of seeing and testing works for so much of our environment: toys, food, clothes, dogs and cats and even people. We see, we touch, we feel, we know.
It isn’t long, though until the system proves inadequate. From algebraic equations to scientific principles, we come to know without the security of touching, holding, manipulating. We come to accept many things on faith in logic, in methods of inference and deduction. But even these skills can leave us feeling unsure, and they don’t apply to every aspect of life. How do we know someone loves us or that a friend can be trusted with a secret? Do our loved ones who have died live on and still love us? Life becomes ever more complicated, and knowing what is real and what is not becomes ever more challenging.
For the aspects of life that defy “seeing is believing” and lie beyond our grasp, we often rely upon our trust in others to decide what to believe. Early in life we learn about fairy tales, mythical beings and magical places. Belief rests upon stories we’ve heard, pictures we’ve seen or movies we’ve watched. But sadly we come to know that not all we see or hear about is real and learning to discriminate is not always easy. For the most difficult questions we often rely on others to help us decide. Parents, older siblings and teachers are among our earliest authorities, and we soon add experts for special areas of concern. Imagine being told that someone you love has a life-threatening disease. What treatments you accept depend first upon your willingness to believe that the medical experts are correct. Like believing your parents when they once told you that some foul-tasting medicine was good for you, you need to trust that your physicians know a reality that is beyond your senses. Relying on others begins in our early attachments to people who prove worthy of our trust. Attachment serves as a foundation for healthy relationships throughout our lives. Today we are faced with a whirlwind of information and advice swirling around us from compelling and often competing sources. We have access to information from people we have never met and will never know. Whom should we trust, which sources are credible, and whose reality is valid?
Isn’t it ironic that in an age of immeasurable information, there is so little that we can assume to be credible? As technology transformed the way information is communicated, it also challenged our ability to know what is accurate, true, or valid and what is inaccurate, fabricated, or invalid. Sophisticated photoshop techniques, computer animation and special effects have contributed to a world in which so much is within our sight but not our grasp. The skepticism of knowing that seeing is not believing might help keep us safe, but safe has rarely inspired greatness. Without reliable ways of distinguishing fact from fiction we might conclude that no one is above suspicion and nothing is believable. Signs of such lack of trust are evident. Many parents refuse vaccinations for their children, choose homeschooling over public education, install hidden cameras in their homes, and monitor their children’s text messages and Internet activity. Young adults are waiting longer to commit to marriage, and couples check their mates’ emails and voice messages. But the deeper significance of a crisis of trust extends beyond specific behaviors. Questioning the validity of everything could diminish the motivation to acquire knowledge. Not trusting the experts could mean relying instead on our emotions, our stereotypes, our wishful thinking, or our biases. Assuming that journalists, politicians, government and religious leaders are all suspect could result in a generalized rejection of authority, expertise, norms, values and beliefs. Assuming that bosses, co-workers, acquaintances, friends, and relatives are all suspect could threaten the bonds of affiliation essential to human happiness.
We need to develop ways of determining the degree of confidence we should have in various sources of information. Just as truth in advertising became policy, standards need to be established to inform students, patients, viewers and consumers in user-friendly ways about levels of credibility of experts, programming, and sources of information. Cynicism jeopardizes trust. In order to protect the development of bonding, affiliation and relationships, it is important that we teach children ways of determining whom and what sources to trust.