Fear Causes Trust, Blindness

Three years ago I reported on psych studies suggesting that we trust because we fear:

High levels of support often observed for governmental and religious systems can be explained, in part, as a means of coping with the threat posed by chronically or situationally fluctuating levels of perceived personal control. (more)

New studies lay out this process in more detail:

In the domain of energy, … when individuals [were made to] feel unknowledgeable about an issue, participants increasingly trusted in the government to manage various environmental technologies, and increasingly supported the status quo in how the government makes decisions regarding the application of those technologies. … When people felt unknowledgeable with social issues, they felt more dependent on the government, which lead to increased trust.

When they feel unknowledgeable about a threatening social issue, … [people] also appear motivated to avoid learning new information about it. … In the context of an imminent oil shortage—as opposed to a distant one—participants who felt that the issue was “above their heads” reported an increased desire to adopt an “ignorance is bliss” mentality toward that issue, relative to those who saw oil management as a relatively simple issue.

This effect … is at least partly due to participants’ desire to protect their faith in the capable hands of the government. Among those who felt more affected by the recession, experimentally increasing domain complexity eliminated the tendency to seek out information. These individuals avoided not only negative information but also vague information, that is, the types of information that held the potential (according to pretesting) to challenge the idea that the government can manage the economy. Positive information was not avoided in the same way. (more)

I (again) suspect we act similarly toward medicine, law, and other authorities: we trust them more when we feel vulnerable to them, and we then avoid info that might undermine such trust. It is extremely important that we understand how this works, so that we can find ways around it. This is my guess for humanity’s biggest failing.

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  • Robin, as I understand you, you are suggesting only that willfully ignorant trust may be humanity’s biggest failing, and you are not suggesting that all forms of trust are failings. Is this an accurate characterization of your position?

  • Matt

    Is this how we act towards experts or elites in general? I’ve been getting the feeling that a variation of this is what happened in the recent Penn State scandal. Let your superiors know, and put it out of mind seemed to be everyone’s mantra, but I wouldn’t consider their superiors to be experts.

  • Lincoln, I’m not saying never to trust.

    Matt, I changed the word from “experts” to “authorities.”

  • Some other major failings spring to mind: ignorance, stupidity, laziness, lethargy.

  • Doc Merlin

    “I (again) suspect we act similarly toward medicine, law, and other authorities: we trust them more when we feel vulnerable to them, and we then avoid info that might undermine such trust.”

    There is a very good reason for that. If you don’t kowtow enough, you will be punished severely. This isn’t an irrational behavior. Its just Stockholm syndrome and learned helplessness on a massive scale.

  • Doc Merlin

    Extending my previous note, I would like to point out that its usually the elites that launch revolutions not the underprivileged.

  • Daniel Yokomizo

    Mark amiller from the capability security community said this:

    Norm Hardy taught me the importance of the concept of TCB. This wonderful concept has such a horribly misleading name that, whenever we use it, we should explain that it stands for “That mechanism other things are necessarily vulnerable to.”

    The terms “rely” and “vulnerable” do not create this offensive confusion. T claim that Winston Smith is vulnerable to the state, and relies on the stat not to vaporize him, is a judgement that observers can well make about his situation. To claim that he thereby trusts the state not to vaporize him is doublespeak.

  • Albert Ling

    Isn’t this research just stating obvious common knowledge?

    This is the main reason people endorse dictators. In times of fear and uncertainty, they want to delegate authority to a “strong man” so that they cease to have to deal with decisions and thinking and just follow orders. People prefer to be less free if that releases some anxiety over making hard choices.

    In the U.S. I think this effect is much less pronounced than in Brazil. In Brazil I feel there is generally much more reliance on authority, much less self-confidence in people, much more faith in official data and less skepticism of experts, and a general status-quo bias. So if you are pessimistic looking at people here, then it’s worse then you think 🙁

  • Hello – I found this article interesting, and can shed some light for you in terms of how trust works. A few years ago I developed a simple model for trust, which explains how trust works and what breaks it down, therefore what we need to do to build it. It can be understood by children as young as 7 – 8, and is now being adopted throughout businesses, schools, families and communities around the world.

    In essence, and you can download the simplest version of the model in the form of ‘the simple truth about trust’ from my website, the dynamics of trust boil down to three things: our expectations in any given situation and relationship, our needs (I use Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs), and what has been promised to us by the person, the company, the product or service. Trust sits on a balance of these three things and I draw it like a wall (you can see this in the ebook).

    Although you surmise that fear causes trust, it is actually humanity seeking ways to meet basic needs, having a set of expectations about what that might look like, and how that might be experienced (based on our previous experiences, things we’ve seen or been told, or similar experiences we have had). When our expectations and needs appear to be met by another’s promise (implicitly and explicitly), we are drawn to those people, organisations, products and services.

    Whether that trust is well founded, the promises kept, the expectations and needs met, is another thing, and is fundamentally how trust breaks down.

    Fear, in my mind, is the absence of trust.


  • Phil

    Sometimes I’ve wondered if people are so scared to make a bad choice that they’re willing to let someone else choose for them, even if the outcome is worse.

    That way, even though they get a bad result, they don’t lose status by having been seen to have caused it themselves. And, everyone else gets that same bad result, too, so that even in outcomes, their relative position is not affected.

  • Michael Wengler

    It is not even vaguely plausible that an individual will become sufficiently expert in more than a tiny fraction of the important technologies (including medicine, law, plolitics, nutrition, electronics, security, mechanics…) that impact her life every day. OF COURSE you trust a massive amount of your physical security and survival to others, either explicitly (as in this post) or implicitly (as in people who don’t know what the world is like without police, sewers, and refrigeration.)

    I don’t see how you can describe our capacity to trust as a “failing” when it is an absolutely essential component of massively integrated modern world and the remarkable science, technology, and art that this makes possible.

  • Dave

    I think you are right, but it does not seem to be a mystery, when you say
    “I (again) suspect we act similarly toward medicine, law, and other authorities: we trust them more when we feel vulnerable to them, and we then avoid info that might undermine such trust.”

    But this does not necessarily mean that “the establishment or “conservative “ideas are supported. Trust is a tool people rely on to get something done. If they don’t need a doctor they have no need to trust or not trust doctors. If they get cancer they will seek a trusting relationship with a doctor.

    Of course they seek one who knows more than they do. To describe this negatively as feeling vulnerable is not the way I would describe it. They really are vulnerable!

    They may choose a doctor who practices conventional medicine or rely on alternative healers such as ones who use Chinese herbs. If I tell a man he is seeing a quack, he will resent this because of the hope and trust he has in Chinese herbal medicine. The interesting question is why people choose to invest their trust in differing and mutually exclusive programs. For example, why did Steve Jobs pursue alternative medicine first for his cancer?

  • Instant Karma

    I agree that it is extremely important that we understand this bias or shortcoming. We seem hardwired to believe in top down solutions and neglect the power of decentralization and spontaneous order.
    Sometimes it seems much of social progress over the past 500 years or so has come as we have shaken off various manifestations of this Big Kahuna fallacy. Science, Democracy, Free Markets, Liberalism, Evolution: All can be viewed as partial pealing back of this bias.

  • Lord

    So the Tea Party fears loss of control which drives them to redouble their beliefs, not in government, but in their party and religion?

  • Viliam Búr

    The “fear -> trust” mechanism can be exploited by creating more fear, as many successful leaders already know.

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  • Stockholm syndrome.

  • This might turn into one of the best excuses to ignore contrary opinions since the Dunning–Krueger effect (commonly cited in debates between two groups of arrogant fools each claiming that the other side is unskilled and unaware of it). If you try citing an authority, you can be accused of trusting said authority only because of ignorance.

    BTW, what are the implications of someone trusting in the authority of the psychologists who discovered this effect?

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