Illustration of blindfolded woman walking on tree branch
Building a web of trust has been a slow process, taking hundreds of generations (Illustration by Terry Vine/Stone/Getty Images)

Topics: Ethical Living | Society

Trust is tricky these days, but we need it to survive as a society

Relying on each other is the basis of all social order, yet today we have more reason than ever to distrust. Can we hope to find our balance once more?


A long time ago, I had a friend named Kenny who refused to take airplanes — or ride in any motorized vehicle if he could help it — and would only eat food he cooked himself. I knew this couldn’t go anywhere good. It didn’t. Eventually, after becoming more and more iconoclastic, Kenny was diagnosed with a mental illness and, last I heard, was in and out of psychiatric institutions. In recent months, despite knowing what I know about Kenny, there were moments I found myself — and a lot of people around me — feeling more and more like him. Kenny had a hard time trusting, and it paralyzed him.

Sometimes the rest of us are tempted to feel the same way. As the economy melted down in 2008 and 2009, so too did our trust in the global financial system. Watching their jobs and careers disintegrate, along with savings and retirement funds, people rightfully demanded, “Whom can we trust?” Since then, the erosion of trust has continued, from Toyota’s faulty brakes to BP’s negligent safeguards against oil-well blowouts. The demonstrable anger of voters in the United States and, increasingly, here in Canada should not come as a big surprise. There is a widespread sense that we have been betrayed, and people are ready to take it out on whoever is handy.

This disillusion is difficult because trust is the cornerstone of our society. To function in life, each of us needs to trust a myriad of unseens. In a simpler time — not that long ago in human history — people dealt with people they knew, understood the workings of the machines they operated, and trusted everything else — the mysteries of life, death, harvests, hunts and weather — to God. Now our lives are both sustained and controlled by technologies and systems far too complicated to understand, like supersonic aircraft and digital banking. And the people we depend on, like aircraft engineers or the technicians who can debug our computers from call centres in Bangalore, are strangers. On top of that, even things like the weather can no longer be ascribed purely to God. We believe human activities are causing changes in our climate, which means that for our very survival, we have to trust that millions of other people will do the right thing (and they us).

In addition to ministering at First Pilgrim United in Hamilton, Rev. Paul Fayter has a doctorate in science and teaches courses on the history of science at York University. He tells me, “Biblically, trust is a covenant relationship, synonymous with faith. We have no certainties, only promises; trust is both the divine gift and the human choice.”

It’s also a brain function. All kinds of neurological things have to happen as we assemble data. Our mind constructs information out of that data, and we have to trust this is a true representation of reality. In relying on trust, humans share characteristics not only with our closest evolutionary ancestors, chimps and the big apes, but with species far removed from us, like ants and dogs. People who study other species observe how trust is integral to both their relationships and their survival. Only those beings that form relationships survive and reproduce. “By nature we are prone to trust, and by nurture we are raised to trust,” says Fayter. “Darwin’s line would be, ‘If we did not trust, we would not be here.’”

Anthropologists or evolutionary biologists might look at the history of human civilization and note how our patterns of trust started very small and gradually built outward in ever-expanding circles. The first other humans we trust are, necessarily, our parents. This is how civilizations began, with family groups that depended on and trusted one another, but didn’t much trust anybody else. As societies grew outside the parent-child bond, the trust between people who knew each other extended wider and wider until, in our time, it would encompass great numbers of people we have never even met. Building this web of trust has been a slow process; it took hundreds of generations to move from the rudimentary extended family and tribe to the national and now global society.

Some sense of quasi-tribal connection still works. People discover they went to the same school or belong to the same service club, and they start doing business together, vouching for one another, welcoming each other into their homes.

Communities of faith might be viewed as possessing tribal or at least club-like identifiers. Robert Wright, in his 2009 book The Evolution of God, describes how when St. Paul was evangelizing for the early church, his letters to Christian congregations often included requests that they extend hospitality to travelling church leaders, even though they were complete strangers. “This extension,” observes Wright, “was a revolution of sorts since security and hospitality when travelling had traditionally been the privilege of the powerful. The Roman Empire had made distant travel easier than at any time in history, and Christianity exploited this fact. The young church was, among other things, the Holiday Inn of its day.”

Wright pays particular attention to Paul’s choice of words in calling Christians “brothers and sisters in the faith.” This notion has persisted over 2,000 years, and from the very beginning was a deliberate effort to create a sense of family, a feeling that Christians could (and should) trust one another. “In the days before the Internet,” Wright asks, “where to find people willing to provide you with valuable information, show you around town, help you make contact with others in your profession or with possible clients? What about a congregation full of ‘siblings’?”

The most basic tenet of trust between people is our word, the shared covenant that when we say something or promise something, we will abide by it. Lawyers and courts are available to enforce these covenants, but they can intervene only in the exceptions. Ninety-nine percent of the time, trust has to operate on its own accord; the basic fabric has to be strong and secure. As political philosopher Francis Fukuyama observed in his 1995 book Trust, the Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity, “A nation’s well- being, as well as its ability to compete, is conditioned by a single, pervasive cultural characteristic: the level of trust inherent in the society.”

Yet we need only look to the moments when trust has been abrogated to understand how fragile it is. One big lie or a continuous pattern of little lies can destroy it, whether in a personal relationship or on a broader systemic level.

Once betrayed, trust can disappear for entire lifetimes. After the Great Depression, some members of my grandparents’ generation never again trusted their money to banks. They dealt in cash and stuffed their savings into mattresses. A friend in the Ontario town of Walkerton tells me that many of her neighbours still buy bottled water, 10 years after the E. coli outbreak that claimed seven lives and sickened hundreds of others.

Are we now asked to trust too much? Are things being transformed too quickly for our evolutionary capacities to adapt? Maybe. Consider the recent revelation that an electronic record is kept of every Internet action any of us has ever taken. We now have to trust that Google as well as government and police powers will treat our not-so-private information responsibly.

All this trusting can be wearisome. Yet when it comes down to it, we don’t have much choice. The biological imperative still holds: trust is part of and critical to survival. And so we need to grapple with two questions: How can we trust properly? And how can we ourselves be worthy of trust? If we manage those, we’ll surely be all right. If we don’t, we’ll become paralyzed like Kenny — and ultimately, our species won’t survive.


This story first appeared in The United Church Observer’s November 2010 issue with the title “Trust at your own risk.”


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