Why do we lose trust?

The neuropsychology behind losing and gaining trust.

Trust is…complex.

And once shattered, it seems irretrievable.

Apart from it being something I’ve personally oscillated from 0 to 100 in past situations, I’m acutely aware of its seeming total lack in our world today.

No one trusts anyone, it seems. Especially in these COVID-19 times.

With the rise of fake news, propaganda and hastily forwarded WhatsApp BCs, it’s hard to keep up. People don’t trust their governments, authorities and even partners (a la Twitter).

So as per usual, I went asking — what does science have to say about this?


Why does no one trust anyone anymore?

There are different factors that affect trust — from the obvious to the odd, such as the shape of one’s eyes.

But let’s start with our alphabets.

In order to trust someone, our brain creates a model. When we meet someone for the first time, we subconsciously start to think — what is this person likely to do, should I trust you, do you trust me?

Trust is a continuum, associated with decreased activity in the amygdala. So when it suffers a shattering break, intense emotions are activated, including fear and anger.

From an evolutionary point of view, trust is both a good and a dangerous thing. While it’s good to trust the rest of the tribe, it’s also not the safest thing to do. Why? Vulnerability. And the last thing both predator and prey want to be is vulnerable.

Because of our negativity bias and subconscious skepticism (in the first place) disguised as survival instincts, a breach in trust is difficult to repair. It’s why the whole debacle on an alleged lab leak in China has caused a lot of vaccine hesitancy.

If you missed last week’s issue on Our Second Brain (and why it matters), here you go!

The Mind Nodes
Why We Actually Have 2 Brains.
Recently, I’ve felt somewhat drained. I’m not sure if it’s the weekend getaway I took, where I put myself under an unnecessary pressure to have the most fun in an ungodly amount of time. But what I noticed is that whenever I feel that way sometimes, I kinda feel it in my gut. Is that weird…
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You see, trust requires consistency and sticking to one’s words. Which, I’m sure you can agree, hasn’t been the forte of the media coverage thus far. Shutting oneself out is a valid defence mechanism. Until it’s not.

And trust seems closely linked to empathy (which is another topic entirely), mediated by the same hormone as we’ll see. Which, wait— 

There’s a trust hormone?


The brain chemical of trust.

What does trust look like in the human body, and, indeed, the brain? Can trust be both biological and intangible? Can trust be isolated to a single chemical?

Neuroscientist and author of Trust Factor, Paul Zak, conducted a series of interesting experiments.

Here’s the summary.

Measuring the blood levels of oxytocin in participants in what seemed like a controlled Ponzi scheme, higher levels were found. But maybe that was a coincidence? They then went on to apply a nasal spray of synthetic oxytocin which showed even more remarkable results. Suddenly everyone seemed to be more trusting while maintain rationality (e.g., they didn’t become more prone to “gambling”, as it were).

Oxytocin, the bonding hormone especially for newborn babies and their moms (especially when breast-feeding), is a major player. As it turns out, it also mediates empathy and high concentration of its receptors are found in the frontal cortex.

(It) involves our hypertrophied cortex, the brain’s outer surface, where insight, planning, and abstract thought largely occur. Parts of the cortex let us do an amazing trick: transport ourselves into someone else’s mind. Called theory of mind by psychologists, it’s essentially our ability to think, “If I were her, I would do this.” It lets us forecast others’ actions so that we can coordinate our behaviour with theirs.” — Paul J. Zak

How do we then increase its levels?


What can we do about it? 

Although research on this seems limited, it seems the first step in building trust is consistency — staying true to and following up with one’s words.

Transparency and admitting mistakes have also been found to be necessary.

Rebuilding trust is an entirely different topic but I’ll admit it’s hard-work and it takes an even longer time than the original.

Needless to say building trust generally is a Herculean task, but not impossible. Trust me.


🔌 Recommendation of the week!

This brilliant article that breaks down the neuroscience of trust but in the work environment and for business owners.