If You Want Truth, Build Trust

Truth, Who Needs It? part 3

The social fabric is unraveling amid the disintegration of trust. A significant part of why this is happening is: no more common enemy.

A group of people is defined by a shared enemy. The human survival strategy depends on ultrasociality, belongingness, group cohesion. The strategy evolved in a context of enemies. Violent conflict between hunter-gatherer tribes was a recurring fact of life, and it was one of the drivers of our ultrasociability: the tribe that was most cohesive, that could best cooperate together was better able to defeat the tribe that wasn’t. Tribes not so good at the seamless merging of minds for collective projects – including collective defense – got wiped out.

Ten million years or so ago there were hundreds of hominid (great ape) species. Now there are just five hominid species left: humans, chimps, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans. (Technically, there are eight because taxonomists now identify three different species of orangutan and two different species of gorilla.) And the other four aren't really holding their own. Without specific protections, neither, chimps, bonobos, gorillas, nor orangutans would last long. We already wiped out all those other hominid species. We wiped them out by outcompeting them – by winning the arms race for primate ultrasociability.

And always part of the way our belongingness and togetherness functioned was in identifying and working together against enemies.

The trust level of Americans for other Americans was never higher than in World War II. We loved our fellow Americans, were ready to die for each other, trusted our neighbors, and trusted our institutions. We had to – to fight against our common enemy. As the sense of a common enemy has slowly receded, and the Soviet Union collapsed, we gradually turned our belongingness and trust away from the nation as a whole and more toward groups within the nation that could identify other groups as enemies.

We have brains that are oriented toward threat – and when there is no obvious external threat, we start looking for the less obvious ones. So: political polarization results. The network of trust fragmented into smaller groupings. The finger is often pointed at social media, and I’d say, sure, social media helped facilitate the formations of new circles of trust that distrusted other circles. But it’s a process that was in motion anyway. The fundamentalist community, for instance, hasn't trusted the scientific community or the mainstream media since the Scopes trial in 1925 (see Michael Gerson's insightful analysis HERE).

Myself, I've never been big on patriotism. It feels weird to find myself bemoaning that shared national identity no longer binds us together in trust. It's true that I can be a misty romantic about American ideals, but I’m also keenly aware of how truly awful my country has been to indigenous people, to enslaved Africans and their descendants, to the Japanese we put in internment camps, and to immigrants.

I’ve always wanted to urge a loyalty that was not defined by an enemy, a loyalty not to a smaller group within America, but a loyalty to larger circles: all humans, all mammals, all vertebrates, all life, all things -- "mountains and rivers and the great wide earth; the sun and the moon and the stars." I would hope that my fellow Americans, if they can't manage to identify more expansively, would at least not identify more narrowly. Yet that's what's happening.

I know I’m not alone. This is the Unitarian Universalist sensibility I was raised in. We aren’t alone, but we are in the minority.

Our role in the distressing catastrophe we see unfolding around us is, first, to see it clearly. It’s about trust, and the human need to trust – and how that so often and so easily is bound to a strategy of distrust -- that trusting this group goes with distrusting certain others.

Second, keep looking for ways to build connection, build bridges, build trust everywhere. Keep looking. (If you're in White Plains, one place to look is HERE. Across the nation, a place to look is HERE.)

And, third, is there anything we can do about those cognitive biases? Not so much. Daniel Kahneman, at age 84, still holds an appointment at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He’s been studying and writing about our cognitive biases for a long time. He is very pessimistic about any prospect for curing or much mitigating our cognitive biases. We have a quick-thinking part of our brain that jumps to conclusions and makes a lot of mistakes, but we really need it. We couldn’t function if we used only the slow, careful analytic capacities of our brain.

There isn't much we can do about this, but let us do what little can be done. Our best bet is actually that bias I started off with: the tendency to spot errors in other people’s thought while oblivious to our own. We can use that against ourselves – or, rather, FOR ourselves. It means other people can spot our errors more readily than we can. We will never be able to see the log in our own eye very well, but we see the speck in other people's eyes -- which means they can see -- and, if we let them, they can show us -- the log in our own eye.

As Daniel Kahneman says, the most effective check is from the outside. Our cognitive biases are part of our ultrasociability, and we can use our ultrasociability to counter them. Individually, we can’t train them out of ourselves, but groups can counter-act them.

That’s a spiritual message: we need each other. We are better together. In community, we come into our wholeness. Our emotional wholeness, and spiritual wholeness, and even our cognitive wholeness is in relationship.

The simple fact of being in a group gives you other perspectives that check your own. Beyond the automatic advantages, groups working together can train themselves in some specific techniques that research has found improve their effectiveness. One technique is creating and following checklists of factors to make sure not to skip over. Another technique is something called a “premortem,” which can help mitigate optimism bias. To do a "premortem," require members of the group “to imagine that a project has gone very, very badly and write a sentence or two describing how that happened” (Yagoda)

Individually, by yourself, you will never do this. You just won’t. But a group that formalizes premortems as part of its process, will do it. And it helps. Writing out how things might go awry forces the quick, intuitive brain to step back and let the slow, plodding, careful brain work things through. Moreover, sharing such exercises is a group-bonding experience -- it enhances trust.

This is the core work before us: to build trust. If you want more truth, work to build trust.


These are the final words at the end of Robert Aitken's book, Zen Master Raven:
Raven took his perch on the Assembly Oak and addressed a special meeting of the Tallspruce community, saying, "It's time for me to be moving on."
Porcupine asked, "Where will you be going?"
Raven said, "Where cedar roots stand bare in the creek."
A hush fell over the circle. Grouse could be heard sniffling. At last Porcupine asked, "Do you have any last words for us?"
Raven said, "Trust."
* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Truth, Who Needs It?"
See also
Part 1: Hooray for Cognitive Bias
Part 2: When Truth Stopped Mattering

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