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The Catholic Church, Toyota, Trust, and Fear

The Catholic Church, Toyota, Trust, and Fear

On the face of it, Toyota and the Catholic church seem to have little in common. But they're both suffering severe criticism lately, for the same profound reason. Both of these major global institutions ignored the important role that trust plays in the psychology of our perceptions of risk. And they're continuing to ignore the importance of trust, even as they claim to want to rebuild it, in the inadequate way they are responding to the mess they've made. They're apologizing, but they are not backing up their mea culpas with sufficient action. Because trust has such a powerful influence on our perception of risk, words alone will not be enough.

Pope Benedict has just offered a letter of contrition to Catholics in Ireland for the Church's failure to protect its members, particularly its children, from decades of sexual abuse by clergy. Speaking to the victims, he wrote "You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry. I know that nothing can undo the wrong you have endured. Your trust has been betrayed and your dignity has been violated." (The full letter is at

You can hear similar themes in Akio Toyoda's remarks after his company, the world's largest automaker, was found to have defective cars that in a couple dozen tragic cases killed people, and after we learned that for years Toyota resisted regulatory pressure for recalls that could have fixed the problems, and saved lives. In an OpEd in the Washington Post Toyoda wrote "...we have not lived up to the high standards you have come to expect from us. I am deeply disappointed by that and apologize. As the president of Toyota, I take personal responsibility. That is why I am personally leading the effort to restore trust in our word and in our products." (The full letter is at

Both leaders recognized that trust has been damaged. But apologies won't be enough to rebuild it because of the serious way trust was damaged in the first place. It wasn't the sexual abuse of children by clergy that damaged trust in the Catholic church. It wasn't Toyota's faulty cars either. Both organizations had a problem, and to protect themselves, they hid it. They put themselves first, and the safety of their parishioners or customers second. Until they demonstrate with tangible evidence a new attitude that truly puts the safety of the customer or parishioner above the self-interest of the organization, neither Toyota nor the Church can hope to restore the trust of customers or parishioners whose safety was so selfishly discounted.

Both leaders took a good first step by admitting that institutional defensiveness and self-interest was the real problem. Toyoda admitted that his corporate leaders put sales and growth over safety. Pope Benedict conceded the sexual abuse persisted because of "...a misplaced concern for the reputation of the Church and the avoidance of scandal..." But all Mr. Toyoda promised to do was seek consumer input on future decisions about recalls. Meanwhile the company is busily defending itself against lawsuits and embarrassing revelations that they considered it a cost-saving success when they avoided recalls. (How much are those "successes" costing them now?!) The Pope in his letter offered no concrete actions at all. No discipline of senior clergy complicit in the cover ups. No formalization of rules making it mandatory to report abuse cases to public authorities for criminal investigation. No full coming clean of who knew what, when (including possible Pope Benedict himself when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Munich during years of sex abuse problems there).

You can hear how inadequate apologies alone are, in the voices of Catholics responding to the Pope's letter. Peter Isely, the director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said "It may make a few adults temporarily feel better. But it won't make any kids safer. It won't shed light on hidden truths. It won't discipline wrong-doers. It won't deter more wrong-doing. That requires courageous action, not a papal letter."

The psychology of risk perception has found that trust plays a big role in whether we are more or less afraid. That makes sense. The human animal is a social animal. We depend on the fellow members of our tribe for health and welfare, so we are exquisitely sensitive to signals about trust. When it comes to our safety, we have to know who we can count on and who we can't. Neuroscience studies have found that levels of trust influence activity in the part of the brain where fear starts, the amygdala. More trust dampens signaling from the amygdala. Less trust turns amygdala activity up. The connection between trust and fear is deep in our biology.

So if we think a company cares more about its profits than our safety, we will worry about its products. If we think an organization responsible for the safety of our children cares more itself than about our kids, we won't trust that organization with our children, nor give it our full faith. Until those organizations demonstrate with actions that they are truly ready to put the safety of customers and parishioners first, they will not be able to fully restore the trust that their own myopic self-interest has so badly damaged.