Technology, Culture, & Emotional Intelligence

Small, Personal, Local, Generational

Trust is born when fallible people, understanding their nature, invite the scrutiny of others to keep them in check.

Small, Personal, Local, Generational
Photo by Matt Donders / Unsplash

This is the third and final article in the three-part series on trust in the 21st century. In the first and second articles, I made the case for why I think we are losing trust at a rapid pace, and even further, why we are often placing our trust in those who have not earned it. Today, I want to wrap up this series by diving into what creates real and lasting trust and explore how we might find it once again.

Let’s try a little experiment, shall we?

I would like you to put your engineering hat on, and rate your depth of knowledge about the inner workings of three specific objects on a scale of 1 to 7. 1 means you have absolutely no idea how that thing works. 7 means you know everything there is to know about how it works. Here are the objects:

  • A zipper
  • A crossbow
  • A toilet

Believe it or not, these exact questions (as well as these exact same items) were asked in a psychology experiment back in 2002. Researchers Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil were exploring the self-deceptive power of the mind. After participants rated their understanding of each object on a scale of one to seven, the researchers would launch a gentle but devastating ambush “I see you've rated your knowledge of the toilet at six out of seven,” they would say. “That's great! Here's a pen and a piece of paper. Please would you write out your explanation in as much detail as possible? Feel free to use diagrams — that sometimes helps.”

In being forced to explain their knowledge in detail, Rozenblit and Keil discovered that a majority of people in the experiment had been lying to the researchers. Of course, the more fascinating result was that participants were also lying to themselves. Almost every single participant chose to reduce their number afterward. It turns out there is something about having to explain ourselves that causes people to reorient their perspective – of themselves, others, and ultimately, the truth itself. Rozenblit and Keil eventually termed this phenomenon the “illusion of explanatory depth” or IOED.

Of course, what applies to our beliefs about the function of toilets also applies to our beliefs about even more complex social and political realities. In their 2002 book, “Emerging Perspectives in Judgment and Decision Making,” social psychologist Jennifer Lerner and psychology professor Philip Tetlock explored the types of thinking and justification we do when we are discussing the ‘issues of the day’ depending on who is in the room.

“Tetlock (and Lerner) found two very different kinds of careful reasoning. 'Exploratory thought' is an “evenhanded consideration of alternative points of view.” Whereas, “Confirmatory thought' is “a one-sided attempt to rationalize a particular point of view.”

Unsurprisingly, Tetlock and his colleagues confirmed what Rozenblit and Keil had found — that most people stick to “confirmatory thought” except when they find they might have to explain themselves. More specifically, Tetlock found that: “Accountability increases exploratory thought only when three conditions apply:

  1. Decision makers learn before forming any opinion that they will be accountable to an audience.
  2. The audience’s views are unknown.
  3. They believe the audience is well-informed and interested in accuracy.
"When all three conditions apply, people do their darnedest to figure out the truth, because that’s what the audience wants to hear. But the rest of the time—which is almost all of the time—accountability pressures simply increase confirmatory thought. People are trying harder to look right than to be right."

Tetlock’s most interesting finding of all is that there is an inverse relationship between fame and accuracy in opinion and prediction. In other words, the more famous (and therefore out of touch with reality) a person is, the less likely they are to be able to speak with factual authority.

What the work of Rozenblit, Keil, Tetlock, and Lerner all points to is a truth that I’ve come to hold quite strongly since beginning this series. Here it is:

Outside of forces meant to hold us to standards of truth and accountability, all of us are untrustworthy — even to ourselves.

The great cultural commentator and novelist, Wendell Berry expounded on this very idea in his book of essays entitled, The Way of Ignorance:

“Our ignorance ultimately is irremediable, that some problems are unsolvable and some questions unanswerable—that, do what we will, we are never going to be free of mortality, partiality, fallibility, and error. The extent of our knowledge will always be, at the same time, the measure of the extent of our ignorance."

When it comes to trust, it seems that we are our own greatest adversary. Despite the number of angry commenters online citing conspiracy, I would argue that the greatest problem we face is not found in our institutions — it’s found deep down in our souls. Lying and deceit are at the very core of our nature. No wonder we struggle to trust!

We are so obsessed with the question of who is lying to us, that we’ve forgotten to ask a more important question: who is incentivized to tell us the truth? The question of trust isn’t so much about who is reliable and who is corrupt. That's easy – none of us are trustworthy on our own. Trust is born when fallible people, understanding their nature, invite the scrutiny of others to keep them in check.

Three Factors That Incentivize Trust

Last week I argued that an enchantment with the idea of the “Charismatic Outsider” has led us to follow those who project an aura of being self-made, successful, and ultimately unbeholden to any outside forces. But these things don’t make someone more trustworthy, they just make us more susceptible to their lie.

If we are really going to find the most trustworthy people, we need to condition ourselves to have faith and trust in people who fit the qualifications of someone who is incentivized to tell us the truth. Allow me to point out three factors that are good indications of a trustworthy individual.

They’ve Taken The Long Way

Leadership expert John Maxwell wrote in his book The 360 Degree Leader: “If people paid their dues and gave their best in obscurity, ego is usually not a problem." I tend to agree. When someone rises to fame and influence at an early age, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are untrustworthy, but it sure should cause us to think twice.

This point could seem a little ironic coming from me. After all, I’ve spent my whole professional career teaching adults to give more trust, support, and ownership to youth. What I am cautioning here, though, is not youth. It is the kind of person who has risen to a place of influence not because of their experience or character, but because of their talent. I’ve sat under and listened to plenty of people younger than me who have been through enough to speak with authority. What is far more important than a person’s skill (or age) is their ability to follow what Eugene Peterson called “a long obedience in the same direction.”

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus once said, "To live in the presence of great truths and eternal laws, to be led by permanent ideals, that is what keeps a man patient when the world ignores him and calm and unspoiled when the world praises him."

Time reveals the character of us all. Let’s appreciate most those who’ve been formed by a long and arduous path.

They are Surrounded by Accountability

Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind, notes in his own research that “When people know in advance that they’ll have to explain themselves, they think more systematically and self-critically. They are less likely to jump to premature conclusions and more likely to revise their beliefs in response to evidence."

This quote was a key reason for beginning this series of articles talking about conspiracy theories. The problem with conspiracy theories — to expand on my original thought — is that they are almost always disseminated by individuals outside the bounds of character-forming institutions and systems of accountability. Absent a system of accountability, they’ve left us no reason to believe we are being told the truth. If we are going to believe that lies surround the public statements of those at the heads of powerful institutions, the rebuttal to these statements cannot legitimately come from other powerful people who are free from those same institutions.

Trustworthy people invite accountability. They are secure in accountability. They don’t fear the questioning of others because their work and words are not about their own reputation and power, they are about something greater than themselves.

They Welcome Boundaries

Two people encounter a fence that blocks a roadway. The first one sees the obstacle in the way of their progress and orders those with him to tear it down. The second stops, and orders everyone to stop and think until someone can figure out why the fence was built in the first place.

How’s this for a countercultural idea? — I believe we’ve undervalued the utility of obstacles — especially obstacles for leaders. What would happen if we took a break? If we self-imposed a limit? Not because we had to, but because we knew we needed the reminder of our own limitations. In generations past, this boundary setting was called “temperance.” It’s one of those beautiful old words that deserves a second look.

For years now, my wife and I have attended a church with a leader who has a gift for communication. Years ago over a meal, this leader let me know that he had personally decided not to write a book and get on the “pastor speaking circuit.” What seemed at first a strange choice to me made sense later as I considered his values. That path would take him on trips outside of our community — and he believed deeply in the power of investing in a local community. That path would have led him to fame and wealth — which he already knew was a source of temptation for him. It was a self-imposed boundary formed by his awareness of his own limitations. Needless to say, since hearing about his boundary, I trust him more, not less.

I wonder what fences we’ve torn down and why? Maybe those fences were built by generations past to help temper our worst impulses. Maybe they helped us focus more on what matters most. Maybe they helped keep wolves at bay.

A few years ago I listened to a fascinating podcast on the subject of truth and how we find our way to the solutions of the world’s biggest problems. Most of the podcast (which many of you probably listened to) focused on a toxic leader who ran a multi-million dollar organization that collapsed in the wake of his own moral and leadership failures. But in an epilogue, while trying to make sense of how such a toxic situation was allowed to go on for so long, the host pointed out an important truth that I think we’d do well to remember:

“We often try to fix our problems with the same sort of impulses that created them.”

Take a second and think about the truth of these words. We’ve spent centuries collecting more and more facts hoping to get closer to truth — only now to find ourselves drowning in data and more confused than ever. In the wake of our distrust in the powerful institutions we once thought would save us, we turn instead to detached individuals who manipulate our in-group bias for their own power and influence – leading to more distrust than ever.

I think we lack trust in our leaders today because we’ve fallen victim to the allure of the world we live in. A world convinced that the solutions to our greatest problems, like the rest of our lives, should be big, fast, and easy. When we believe that our solutions should be as easy as our problems it makes it easy for charismatic leaders to step in like used car salesmen. To believe there is one simple explanation (read: conspiracy theory) for a complex global problem is to try and fix the world with the same impulse that led us here. That’s why when I see big and fast and easy solutions — I call B.S.

If tearing down the fence and plowing ahead led us here, I think we might need to backtrack and ask why that fence was there in the first place.

The path to real trust is built on four values that we all must embody. Trust is small, trust is personal, trust is local, and trust is generational. Small means we return to believing that every little action we take matters. Personal means we return to investing most in our face-to-face interactions with those in our inner-most circles — our greatest sources of trust, support, and accountability. Local means that we return to investing ourselves in our neighbors and understanding that our neighborhood is more important than our national or political affiliation. And perhaps most controversial of all, generational means that we end our narcissistic obsession with fixing problems overnight (or even in our lifetime) and realize that some wounds are too great for anything but time to heal. We apologize for our mistakes and pass down what we've learned to the next generation – challenging them to do better.

So, you want to earn trust? Forget the followers and the likes. Shut down the podcast and the live stream. Put down that idea for your next book. You can pick that stuff up later. For now, just step outside. Spend time with your neighbors, friends, and family. The greatest impact you’ll ever make is just on the other side of that door.

For a final word, I’ll run the risk of blasphemy and attempt to (I hope) appropriately amend the words of Mother Teresa of Calcutta:

“Love (and trust) begins at home.”


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Jamie Larson