The Curious Counsellor – May


Who and How to Trust

Earlier this month, many of us took a leap of faith – we stepped into a small box in a local town hall and cast our vote. Sure we voted for ideas and policies but beyond that we voted for the person we felt most likely to deliver what they promised, in other words the person we trusted most.

I’ve been wondering what we base that decision on. How do we choose who to trust – whether it’s a politician, our child’s teacher, the man who fixes our car at the garage or a person who speaks to us on the train (see below for rankings).

For a long time researchers looking at trust focussed on facial expression and other non -verbal communication. Psychologist Albert Mehrabian famously suggested that three things determine what kind of impression we make and in particular whether people like us. He said that tone of voice accounts for 38%, body language 55% and our words for only 7%.

This emphasis on non-verbal communication had a certain appeal because it seemed to be something we could learn to read in others and change in ourselves. We would know we could trust someone for instance if they looked us straight in the eye, sat with an open posture or even mirrored our physical behaviours. Similarly we could command trust in others once we learned the rules; selecting certain clothes to convey a particular message or assuming a particular posture or tone of voice to convey it more effectively.

There were also practical applications. Social psychologist William Maddux looked at the impact of non-verbal communication on business success. He asked one group of volunteers to subtly mirror the actions of the person they were negotiating with  – elbows on the table, head tilted etc – and the other group not to do this. Where behaviour was mirrored, 67% of those in the group clinched a deal whereas only 12.5 of the non-mirroring group managed to do business. It’s easy to see why politicians are trained to rethink their non-verbal communication.

The other take on trust is more complex. According to psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, trust is absolutely fundamental to who we are. It is something we internalise early that is not as amenable to simple manipulation as non-verbal communication

In Erikson’s model of psychological development, the development or failure to develop trust is our first task as infants and will depend on how well our needs are met by our caregivers, usually our parents. Are these caregivers consistent in the provision of food, comfort, care and love or are they unpredictable, unreliable, absent or neglectful?

According to Erikson, the extent to which we successfully learn to trust those closest to us as infants, effects whether we grow into secure or insecure, optimistic or pessimistic adults and provides a working model for the way we see the world and the people in it.

Over the years we will have additional life experiences that undermine or bolster our sense of trust – people will betray us, criticise or leave us, others will stick by us, meet expectations and support us – but those with a healthier sense of trust in themselves and others will be better able to contextualise and make sense of those experiences

So what about those who have had a bad early experience – can they learn to trust? If so it certainly seems worth it. Trust is of lifelong importance. It’s a key predictor of subjective well-being and vital to the ability to form and maintain meaningful relationships. It also fosters a sense of community because it allows people to work together. Certainly most therapists would say yes. The ability to trust and feel trusted may be rooted in early childhood experience, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn to access these unconscious processes and begin to change them if we choose. Therapy can help to identify patterns in the way we perceive and interpret the world and to notice when we are responding automatically to deeply internalised scripts and ideas. Once we can bring these patterns and beliefs into conscious awareness we can start to re-evaluate and challenge them.

One way to challenge outdated negative beliefs is to create positive new experiences and to do that we have to be willing to take a chance. It’s like the lift analogy. We probably travel in a lift a hundred times a year and 99% of the time it’s fine but one bad experience of being stuck in the lift can overshadow all those trouble-free trips. We then have a choice – avoid the lift, take the stairs and continue to reinforce the belief that the lift is a dangerous place, or, get used to taking the lift again and give ourselves the chance to find out that it’s ok.

So am I willing to challenge my negative beliefs and give Cameron a second chance? Mmmmm, that may take more than therapy.

Most and Least Trusted Professions

(Ipsos Mori 2014)

Doctors                           90%

Teachers                         86%

Scientists                        83%

Clergy                             71%

TV news readers          67%

Police                             66%

Man/woman in the street  62%

Civil servants                55%

NHS managers               49%

Business leaders           32%

Bankers                         31%

Journalists                     22%

Estate agents                22%

Government ministers 19%

Politicians generally      16%