The Origins of Trust

The Origins of Trust


To understand how fundamental trust truly is, we have to go back to the beginning. As it turns out, we humans are hardwired to seek situations in which we feel trust, because our brains release high levels of oxytocin when we experience trust. Oxytocin is a neurotransmitter that makes us feel good and gives us positive feelings about the people around us. As a result, we are able to work through our disagreements and not harbor grudges. We cooperate in extraordinary ways.

All of our emotions stem from our feelings of trust—or the lack of it.

On the positive side, trust gives rise to feelings of generosity, joy, courage, empowerment, self-confidence, tenderness, intimacy, and love. On the negative side, a lack of trust gives rise to feelings of anger, betrayal, jealousy, resentment, and vengefulness—and worse.

  • Why do we feel love?
    Because we trust someone to look after our interests, and we feel trusted in return.
  • Why do we feel betrayed?
    Because we perceive someone isn’t keeping up his end of the bargain.
  • Why do we feel jealous?
    Because someone else is getting the deal we think we deserved to get.

Trust is based on the principle of predictable returns. If I do this for you, I’ll get this in return. The shorthand term is “ reciprocity.”

In his book How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker shows exactly how our brains are wired to respond to actions that build trust. He points out that reciprocity is an evolutionary strategy, hardwired into our genes. If you give me a hand, I’ll return the favor—especially if I think there’s a strong likelihood of repeated transactions with you in the future. Trust hinges on having enough information over time to determine whether reciprocity occurs. Pinker shows that our brains are hardwired to detect whether reciprocity and trust exist—or whether we’re getting the short end of the stick. This “cheater meter” is working in every conscious moment. If I think that you’ve treated me fairly, in ways that I predicted, then my cheater meter is in the green. If not, it swings into the red.

You may not know it, but our cheater meters are working all the time. When we feel trust, our cheater meter fades into the background. Everything feels good (that’s the oxytocin talking). But our cheater meters emerge the moment we experience distrust. Did your boss not include you in a decision that affects you? Did your peer forget to inform you about a meeting with one of your employees? Think about it. You know vividly when you distrust someone. Your cheater meter is a finely tuned instrument—one that you may not have even known existed. It’s working right now as you read. Do you feel you’re getting useful information? Is this what you hoped to be learning? That’s your cheater meter at work.

Let’s add another layer of nuance: Each of us sets our cheater meter a bit differently.

This is particularly evident at the start of a relationship. Some people trust until they have data that convinces them otherwise. Some people distrust until they see evidence that they can trust. And a small percentage are on the margins: they either trust too much or rarely feel trust. Look at the following table and think about where your cheater meter is set.

If you said “trust until,” you join roughly 45 percent of the population who feel that way. Another 45 percent say they “distrust until.” The remaining 10 percent occupy the two extremes, again in roughly even percentages. People have different trust orientations. That’s important to remember as you think about strategies for building trust.

Another dimension of trust is  expectations.

Some people have very high expectations and thus are easily disappointed. Others have low expectations, and don’t feel particularly bothered when their expectations aren’t met.

So how do you build trust? Well, that’s the subject of this entire book.

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