Walking on the Edge of Trust During a Pandemic

Research helps explain the functional role of trust during a pandemic.

Posted Apr 20, 2020

Allie Smith on Unsplash
Source: Allie Smith on Unsplash

Long before the arrival of the recommendations to adhere to handwashing rules aimed at mitigating the spread of COVID-19, I was washing my hands after touching any assumed contaminated surfaces. My intense focus on handwashing led my kids to label me a “germaphobe.” 

While I have pointed out to them that a phobia is actually an intense fear of something that, in reality, poses little or no actual danger, now—with the looming threat of a rapidly spreading virus—their perceptions of my handwashing behavior have changed. Suddenly they trust only me to go to the grocery store and safely unpack the items. The threat is now real to them as well. 

But what will happen if our policymakers and government institutions announce that it is safe for my kids to go back to school in the fall before we have a vaccine? I do not yet feel that I have the comfort level and trust in our current systems, government officials, institutions, friends, and even my own family members to let loose of the tight leash I have on my kids during quarantine life. 

Someday, I presume stay-at-home orders will end. How will we continue to assess who and what sources of information are safe to trust? If we make a trust mistake, it might lead one of us, or others, to essentially “die by trust” during this pandemic.

Paranoia suddenly seems functional and healthy in a pandemic. With no guarantees of when and how we will stop the virus spread, participation in society, at any level, currently requires a mix of trust and paranoia. Trust, rightly directed, will surely make a positive difference in our lives, but without collective agreement on rightly directed trust, we are left to trust only our own understanding of what is right.

Photo by Branimir Balogović on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Branimir Balogović on Unsplash

Pandemic researchers provide us some meaningful direction to understand what rightly directed trust in one another looks like during a pandemic, and how it can bring more favorable outcomes: 

1. We need practical information from trusted sources for basic problem-solving.

Medical professionals working in our health care system and infectious disease scientists have pleaded with us to stay home. Yet, there are birthday party invitations and homemade cupcakes showing up at our door, asking us to participate in society at our friends’ chosen level of comfort. The decision I must make about whether my daughter eats a homemade cupcake has become loaded with high-stakes decisions about who I can trust. 

I notice birthday parties for teenagers in my neighborhood with groups of kids gathered closely together, clearly violating social-distancing rules. My kids tell me there are numerous photos on social media of group gatherings of their classmates openly violating the six-feet-apart rules. In my therapy practice, where there are divorced families, kids are navigating two households with wildly different interpretations of “the rules.” 

We live in a state that has implemented a stay-at-home order. There are states that still have not implemented stay-at-home orders. Bloomberg reports that elder-care facilities are refusing to reveal positive COVID-19 test results. And as the Washington Post reports, rallies protesting stay-at-home orders are openly violating state stay-at-home orders and CDC social-distancing guidelines.

As we swap stories with each other about how we’re handling mail, groceries, wearing masks and experiencing varying levels of participation in society, are we right to trust another when we hear the now oft-repeated phrase, “Well, I’m not going to go overboard with this stuff.” What does that even mean? The bare toilet paper shelves in grocery stores sure seem to be an indicator of going overboard. We will need new ways to assess what constitutes an abundance of caution and trusted sources to provide us with this information.

2. Pandemic living may require an increase in paranoid behaviors to facilitate trust.

When we place our trust in one another, we seek to eliminate fear. On the one side of the paranoia-trust spectrum is: “You can never be paranoid enough. We must commit to behaving in a way that assumes bad virus news from each individual and system we encounter, so we must stay vigilant about preemptive measures.” 

On the other end of the spectrum lies an entirely different set of thoughts and behaviors that are typically associated with feelings of contentment and safety born from an appraisal that high levels of social trust exist: “We can trust that each individual is acting with care and concern for others. Each individual and system we encounter can be trusted to tell us the truth and be vigilant about preemptive measures because they have demonstrated through their actions that they care deeply for themselves and all of us. We can rest safely in the comfort that others care deeply, and can be trusted to make social-distancing rules and proper hygiene practices a number-one priority.”  

But foolish trust can now cost lives. While healthy paranoia and distrust may be adaptive during a pandemic, there is also evidence to suggest that by actively seeking to build and deepen trust in one another by providing clear and accurate information, effective communication, and appropriate personal protective supplies, we can mitigate the effects of negative quarantine experiences to have a long-lasting impact on well-being and improve psychological health. 

Researchers note that communities high in social trust have important benefits for health. Social trust has been linked to a deeper commitment to volunteerism, civic engagement, safety, and sustained health by reducing personal isolation and stress. High social trust gives rise to community capacity to influence health destiny through social norms. 

In order to participate safely in society, we need assistance from trusted medical and scientific advisors in problem-solving our everyday tasks. We need easy access to accurate information on how to protect ourselves and each other when doing the everyday tasks of unpacking groceries, buying toilet paper, and using masks. If trusted sources exist to help us understand what we are experiencing and what we need to do to appropriately take care of ourselves and each other, we can learn and adapt.  

Adaptive behavior change will mean that we understand and do what each of us needs to do to effectively influence our collective health and illness. We will behave with an understanding that our relational processes are connected in ways that shape and are shaped by others at all times. In a pandemic, trust functions as a cornerstone relational process. Trust in one another, in our systems, in our government officials, and ourselves is key to how we weather this storm.