Who Do You Trust?
Finding healthy trust in a world of bots, scammers, and misinformation.
Posted Feb 11, 2020
Imagine going to the grocery store and buying a pack of gum. As you reach for your money, you stare down the cashier coldly. She stares right back, her eyes tense and vigilant. Will she give you the gum, or won’t she?
She grips it tightly while she tries to pry the coin from your fingers. The two of you jostle for a moment and, after some struggle, eventually both let go. The transaction is complete. You glare at each other one last time as you slowly back out of the store.
This scene sounds absurd because it is. We’re social animals, and like it or not, we all depend on each other in an unimaginable number of ways. None of us can function well without a significant amount of trust in other people.
Our species’ ability to work together has been key to our survival. You wouldn’t be here reading these words without other people having taken care of you when you were a tiny, helpless newborn. You had to learn so much from that moment to this one as you grew up, in order to know what these words mean. All of that, your experiences throughout life, has meant depending on other people. It took trust.
Yet our trust seems to be on the decline.
More and more interactions are happening online, and they lack the rich information provided by our tone and body language. Are these reviews real or from people paid to boost product ratings? Is this video real, or has it been doctored? Are these social media comments serious, or is this person just trolling? Are they even human?
Even in real-world stores, we might wonder if those happy shoppers are actually buying anything, or if they’re just paid actors. Is that person we’re seeing really who they seem to be, or are they wearing a “hyper-realistic face mask”? (A study found that when watching videos, we mistakenly believe that these masks are a person’s actual face about 20 percent of the time.)
Politicians, media, advertisers, and the entertainment industry have invested a vast amount into testing and learning about how to push our buttons—eliciting the emotional responses that at once feel powerful and, at another level, fake. That crisp, beautiful sound of thunder in the movies? It’s two people standing around banging plants and crumpled tape.
My bank machine tells me it cares about my birthday, and that gives me a warm feeling for a second. But then I resent it because I know that ATMs aren’t sentient, and it doesn’t actually care at all. It doesn’t even know me. My trust in the bank declines.
Some degree of skepticism can be very justified and healthy in a world with so many bots and scammers. But too much mistrust can be deeply detrimental to our social fabric.
When we don’t trust each other, misunderstandings and hostility become more likely. Polarization and hate as well. We can distrust and dismiss anything that we don’t like the sound of simply by calling it ideological or biased, and then we wind up in separate bubbles where we trust entirely opposing sources of information and let them and only them give meaning to our lives. To overcome this, it really helps if societies have some shared trust.
As it becomes tougher to tell what’s real and what’s fake, it will be more and more important for us to learn and recall the skills of connecting with each other and building trust. This includes spending time together doing fun and disarming shared activities, making eye contact, actively listening, trying to imagine the other side’s perspective, keeping our thinking complex, and having richer and more rewarding disagreements.
These skills aren’t easy, and many of us never learn them, but they can make a world of difference to our own well-being and far beyond us too.
There are all sorts of evidence-based tips about these skills in my book, and I’ve shared some bits and pieces of this content on this blog. Ultimately, to move forward in a world of mistrust, we need to play the delicate game of balancing between believing and being critical and skeptical. We need to overcome our fears enough to act, but still be cautious enough not to fall into a bad situation. Without the skills to find this balance, we’d be lost, not even able to buy a pack of gum.