Sunday, December 28, 2008

Thoughts on Trust

I was asked by a respected Psychologist to offer my views on Trust. I realized while writing this that I am not an authority on much of anything. I am a wordsmith. For richer or poorer I engage in the simple craft of stringing words together. As such I offer only simple views. As simple (simplistic) as they are they are mine. Their value is as much in the writing as ever it might be in anyone's reading.


First, define "trust" as I observe and perceive it...

Trust is a primal value.

Trust is complete and unconditional faith in another person, idea or symbol.

Trust is not uniquely human.

Trust is a universal truth.

Trust requires no language of conveyance.

Trust can only exist across the dimension of time.

Trust must have a history to be validated.

Trust is the foundation of personal understanding.

A statement of trust is a promise of and to the future.

Trust need not be reciprocal.

Absence of trust generates angst (stress). (What is the opposite of stress? “It was so good last night I got all calmed out.)

Second, explore the "sociology" or history of the word...

Online Etymology Dictionary "trust"

trust (n.) Look up trust at
c.1200, from O.N.[Old Norse] traust "help, confidence," from P.Gmc.[Proto-Germanic] *traust- (cf. O.Fris.[Old Frisian] trast, Du.[Dutch] troost "comfort, consolation," O.H.G.[Old High German] trost "trust, fidelity," Ger.[German] Trost "comfort, consolation," Goth.[] trausti "agreement, alliance"). Related to O.E.[Old English] treowian "to believe, trust," and treowe "faithful, trusty" (see true).
  • help
  • confidence
  • comfort
  • consolation
  • fidelity
  • agreement
  • alliance
  • to believe
  • faithful

[Author's side note: As language is the foundation of intellectual and rational thought processes then each invocation of a word carries with it its historical/sociological significance. (Roughly comparable to Jung's collective consciousness.)]

The Origins of Trust

Assertion #1: We have an innate desire to trust.

As a primal value trust transcends language (linguistic) definition. A newborn baby does not cognitively evaluate a trusting relationship with his or her mother while at the breast. However, there is very strong evidence that a newborn baby who is shunned or abandoned by his or her mother might not develop a strong foundation of primal trust.

I have arbitrarily chosen, for the sake of this discussion, the newborn infant's relationship with mother as a starting point, or the foundation, of trust. (I would like to acknowledge that heredity and pre-natal care as well play a part in the overall health of a newborn infant.) If a personal sense of trust were solely dependent on a one-time event then it is easily imaginable that mothers of newborns would engage in a formal ritual of 'Trust Instilling'. It is clear however that trust is a living value. It can only be established over time. Hence the continued affections of mothers and fathers on their newborn children affirm and reinforce the child's sense of trust.

If a personal sense of trust were absolute then it would become immaterial. It is only because trust is and can be broken that it is an issue in the first place. Expressed as such trust and the breaking of same are intellectual constructs. We recognize these concepts by example in the maturity of our experience. What of the pre-cognitive or pre-rational child who experiences a breaking of trust? I suggest that a void is created for a small child when he or she experiences the fracture of trust that occurs when parents separate. This void is not a singular event but is ongoing from the point of origin. The child does not have the personal resource of trust that once was present. Needless to say, once it has been broken it cannot be regained in its original state.

Some might suggest that the breaking of trust is inevitable. However lets examine a hypothetical circumstance. Sally grew up in a single nuclear family, matured to adulthood and then began a single nuclear family of her own. John's parents divorce when he was five. John grew up in an environment where there was equal contempt on the part of each parent for the other. I would suggest that Sally will have intact the personal resource of primal trust to serve as an example when she begins her own family. John's personal resource of primal trust stopped maturing after his parents divorce. From this albeit simple example it is not possible to determine the detrimental affect of John's breaking of trust only that a 'void' exists.

Assertion #2: Trust becomes a learned behavior.

Babies and dogs like some people and do not like other people. In both cases I suggest that they are responding to instinct. They are responding to perceptions that are characterized as primal, beyond definition or rationalization. Babies mature to what is euphemistically referred to as the 'Age of Reason'. I suggest that this is not circa age 6-7 but instead concurrent with the very first acquisition of language. As soon as a toddler begins to 'talk' they are subject to intellectual and rational management. It is at this point that a child's sense of trust begins to be modified by the intentional and unintentional input of other intellectual and rational beings in their environment. A classic example of this is that, "You can always trust a policeman."
An unfortunate side effect of this modification is the subjugation of a individual's primal instincts. This will become particularly important in later stages of trust and behavior.

Once we move away from primal trust we then begin to accept trust as a learned behavior. Experience tells us who and what we can trust. The adage, "you are skating on thin ice" alerts us intellectually that an issue of trust is present. We must decide, predicated on environments clues, the best course of action. Inevitably we learn that "thin ice" is not to be trusted. It should be noted that early on the validity of any given point of trust is often predicated on incontrovertible evidence. It is only when our faculties of intellect and ration become more sophisticated that higher orders of trust can be evaluated. These higher orders of trust are often validated with less tangible evidence. Often we are called up on to trust based on the 'word' of someone else. Other times we are called upon to trust simply by faith. ( I believe that to have trust 'by faith' is a "summoning" of primal trust. This might be the highest form of intended subjugation.)

Assertion #3: Trust becomes a social behavior.

More and more our social environment and our peers shape our learned trust. "The enemy of my enemy is my friend" and "You can trust your enemies more than your friends because with your enemies you always know where you stand" are two examples of trust as very complex social relationships. Initiated by our families in the spirit of honoring our culture and our heritage we learn who we can trust and who we cannot. Social standing, economics and education defines who we are like as well as who is different. (Linguistically it should be noted how easy it is to move from "people we are like" to "people we like" and hence trust.) For the purpose of this exploration I put forth this example: George's parents feel that they are unfairly targeted by the authorities because of their political views. While George may or may not have political views of his own he certainly has an influenced opinion regarding the authorities and the validity of "You can always trust a policeman."

As we become social beings we begin to generate our own social trust relationships. "You can't trust her. She gossips all the time." Or, "Be careful, Jim is a tattle-tale." As we grew a bit older our maxims and platitudes became slightly more street wise. "Don't trust anyone over 30." (Ironically I have heard recently that now I am not to trust anyone under 50.) "Question Authority" was another that on the surface was a rallying cry for change but actually undermined our overall sense of social trust. Unfortunately social trust appears to be in radical decline with the actions of Presidents, Governors, Investment Bankers and even some religious leaders.

Final Assertion: Trust is permission.

As with any two-edged sword the permission granted by trust cuts both ways.

Trusting myself.

The extent to which I can trust myself is not determined by my desires or my intentions. Only by realistically evaluating my past circumstances and behavior can I with any certainty predict if I should trust myself. For example, acknowledging that as a child of a "broken" home I have a clearly defined point at which my primal trust was broken, the point at which my trust permission as revoked. I believe the resultant deficit, both subconscious and conscious, has been the root of a number of interpersonal trust issues in my life. The lesson for me is to temper feelings of distrust in a given situation until I can more appropriately evaluate the circumstances.

I can predict the future if only I would trust myself. A review of my personal private history shows me that I have been able to predict many small and a few major events in my life. My problem is I have not given myself permission to "trust" my instincts. I have subjugated or unlearned my primal abilities. I have convinced myself that I cannot trust what I cannot explain or reproduce.

Trusting another.

I can trust others only to the extent that I can trust myself. We have all encountered the individual who appears willing to share every intimate detail of their life at the drop of a hat. For me warning flags go up when I encounter this person. I know that I don't trust myself, or others, to share that freely so I immediately call into question the validity of the other person's sharing. While on the surface this can appear callused and judgmental I hold the belief that it is unhealthy to pour out the intimate details of one's life at the drop of a hat. As such I am weary of this person's motives and objectives. I do not trust them.

If an individual's sense of self trust is further compromised by environmental or health issues then it becomes that much more difficult to trust others. A person who "hears voices" will be more challenged to differentiate between the your real voice and the internal dialogue inside their head. An individual who's trust has been intentionally violated may be frightened by every person they subsequently meet. A person may have been trained or indoctrinated to not trust a specific situations such as an interview which could be misconstrued as an interrogation.

Trusting someone is both giving and accepting permission. The person that pours their intimate details out to you is pressing upon you the responsibility to be trusted. That person is saying that they want to trust you. Often times that individual is also asking for your permission to be trusted. If you accept their permission to be trustworthy you are in some way validating their self worth. By accepting responsibility for their trust you are in some way validating the content of their intimate details. I do not believe either of these particular scenarios are healthy.

Being trusted.

Responsibly accepting permission to be trusted does not mean unconditional acceptance. Being trusted requires the balance of listening, understanding and measured response. There are times when a confidant is called upon to be 'just someone who will listen'. Often just the act of verbalizing a problem or issue of concern is sufficient to afford the speaker some comfort. The more important role of the trusted is to in some way respond - if not we would all whisper our secrets down a well. Our response must be measured. It must reflect the views and values that we are given juxtaposed with our own. The value of our response is not in our didactic presentation but in the inherent comparison of similar and dissimilar views.

Being trustworthy.

Everyone trusts somebody to some extent. Being trustworthy is being prepared to be trusted by many different people. Being worthy of trust means being prepared to accept the responsibility of shared confidential information. Being trustworthy means being prepared in a measured fashion to share our own personal, often times, confidential information. As the sharing of personal information is often a very difficult task the trustworthy must endeavor to facilitate open exchange. The true art of listening must be cultivated. Careful non-invasive clarification practices must be employed to ensure what was heard was actually what was said. Finally the appropriate response must be offered. This is done as much as an acknowledgment as it is a humane reaction to what is being offered.

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