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© NOVA OCTOBER 2010
Trust is the glue that holds societies together, but we've got
to get it right, suggests Eric Harrison.
The oracle at Delphi declared that
Socrates was the wisest man in
Athens. This astonished Socrates
because he always felt that he
ultimately knew nothing. Upon reflection,
he realised that he was wise because he
actually knew how ignorant he was. Unlike
so many clever people, he knew the limits
of his knowledge.
The wisdom of Socrates also implied a
healthy suspicion of the opinions of others.
It pays to be automatically distrustful
of authorities and experts and popular
opinion. The surface is always likely to be
a mask. The appearance of things can
change dramatically when we examine
them in detail. We can't even trust
ourselves. We all have a natural talent for
self deception and are vulnerable to the
deceptions of others.
Yet Socrates was no disgruntled, post
modern cynic. He felt we could always
find the truth that mattered. He knew
that knee jerk scepticism is a kind of
stupidity no more admirable than the
rebellious bravado of youth. It takes no
intelligence to rubbish the views of others
and or to find faults in an idea. If we
don't have the time or mental capacity to
establish the truth for ourselves, we need to
find those on whose opinions we can rely.
Unlike animals, we humans borrow
the wisdom of others. Thanks to language
and writing, we don't have to constantly
reinvent the wheel. We trust in the
scientific laws that provide the resources
we depend on daily. We generally trust the
conventions of our society. We expect our
politicians to be honest if not wise, and
they usually are. We trust other people
to treat us well and they generally do. We
trusted our parents or we would never
have learnt to cross the road safely.
Trust is the essence of all learning.
Human society is so complicated that it
takes 20 years of growing up until we can
be regarded as adults capable of
independent thought. To learn at all, we
have to trust that our parents, our teachers,
our peers and the media know an awful lot
more than we do. Many of us have doubts
from an early age, but it still takes years
of hard won experience to sort out what
deserves to be trusted and what doesn't.
Trust is pragmatic, efficient and
economical. It is the glue that holds
societies together. It is the magic of
teamwork that makes humans operate like
macro organisms. It requires little thought
and conserves energy, which makes it
the main selling point of ideologies: you
relax and let others think for you. Trust is
our default position until knowledge or
disappointment exposes the cracks.
Yet to trust anyone or anything remains
an acknowledgement of ignorance. Trust
should always be provisional pending
further information. Children are very
trusting -- they have to be -- but a clear
sign of maturity is that we become more
discriminating and less trustful as we age.
Self evident truths have a tendency to
degrade with the years. People we once
admired look more and more dodgy.
Once we get the full picture, our youthful
heroes rarely grow in our esteem.
To function at all, we have to trust
what we can't know for certain, but we
can make intelligent assessments based
on probabilities. We could decide that for
all practical purposes, X is almost certainly
true or worth relying on. This is the highest
possible rating for trust. Alternatively,
we could decide that X is only probably
true; or is probably false; or is almost
certainly false, while making all of those
calls on inconclusive evidence. If it was an
absolute certainty that God exists, it
wouldn't require any trust at all.
Total distrust is paranoia. Total trust
is blind faith. People destroy themselves
and others by getting locked into either
of those schlerotic extremes. Our capacity
to trust needs to be flexible and open
to new information. Despite our limited
knowledge and skills, we still have to trust
ourselves to make good decisions -- to
decide how much or how little to trust
in any particular situation.
Given our ignorance, we can easily
be manipulated. Some people are born
with the charisma to inspire trust and lead
others. For any salesman, this ability is a
priceless skill. Great leaders and conmen
usually inspire so much confidence that
we don't see the con until too late.
"Trust me! I know what you need!" say
the marketeers, the politicians, the spiritual
leaders. If we believe them, the payoff
comes immediately as a flood of positive
brain hormones. Faith that someone has
the answer can instantly ameliorate the
pain of self doubt and confusion. The
feeling of trust is enormously comforting
and addictive. It evokes the certainties of
childhood when happiness really was as
close as the next ice cream cone. We can
easily imagine how happy we will be if
we do what the nice man suggests. In
mature adults, trust often implies a degree
of infantile regression.
Since all of us basically earn our
livelihoods by bartering skills and goods,
we are constantly confronted by people
trying to sell us something. We need to be
a bit canny. So whether someone is selling
cosmetics or enlightenment, how can we
tell whom to trust or not? Here are some
● Beware the salesman. He may not be
wrong but he is unlikely to give you the
● Beware of simple solutions. These appeal
to the child in us. If it seems too good
to be true, it probably is.
● Beware of the one-size-fits-all solution.
Each of us is extremely individual in all
our responses. The car salesmen, the
politicians, the Pope, the inspirational
writers are all convinced they know
what will make you happy, without
knowing a single thing about you. Not
even your name.
● Beware of the self appointed expert
no matter how spectacular his claims.
Expertise comes from training, team-
'Beware of the one-size-fits-all solution. Each of us is extremely
individual in all our responses.'
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