Browsing the archives for the trust tag.
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Why We’re So Politically Divided and How We Can Fix It

I'm just sayin'

The recent gun control debate is one clear example of how divided we are as a population, but we see these examples all the time, on immigration, the environment, taxes, abortion, welfare … well, you’ve seen it. You know.

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Why are we so split on these issues? Why are the people who think different things than you do so profoundly wrong and so stubborn and perverse in sticking with their wrongness? Will your side ever win?

While I’m pretty sure there’s no one thing that will explain all political differences, I think there is one single, crucial issue that defines the political divide in America. It’s the issue of who needs to be involved to get things done. Here’s what I mean:


Conservative politics is based on the idea that you have to do things yourself. “Yourself” here means you, the people who are closely connected with you, and if you’re a Christian, God. After all, if God is on your side, then he’s part of the group you can trust absolutely, but you also need to do the things the way you think God would want them done. Regardless, whoever is in your group is who you need to look out for; it’s not safe to trust outside groups.

This makes it clear what to believe on a number of issues:

More taxes to support more government services, or lower taxes and fewer services? Obviously you can’t trust the government to do things for you, because you have to do things yourself. Therefore, the more money you hang onto and the less the government gets to use, the better.

Protect the environment, or allow more access to natural resources? Well, if people are going to rely on themselves, they can’t be restricted from accessing the resources they need to do that. Further, protecting the environment usually means more taxes, which we’ve already established are not what’s needed.

More gun control or more gun freedom? Well, you can’t rely on other people to protect you locally, so the more you and yours have access to guns, the safer you’re going to feel.

And so on. It gets tricky when looking at some larger issues, like military spending, because then “yourself” becomes “your country,” so of course more military power, because you can’t trust the other countries.


Liberal politics is based on the idea that we have to do things together. If we all are only looking out for ourselves, the thinking goes, then we’ll always be at odds with each other, and things will be chaotic and unsafe. If we work together, on the other hand, we’ll be able to do more, and almost everyone will be much better off.

This also makes it clear what to believe on a number of issues:

More taxes to support more government services, or lower taxes and fewer services? If we’re going to do things together, then we need constructs like governments to get the work done, so more taxes are acceptable within limits if that means the government is doing more for people. If we’re paying more for taxes, for instance, but everyone gets much better health care, then everyone’s better off.

Protect the environment, or allow more access to natural resources? Even though some people may benefit from accessing more natural resources, we all lose out when the environment is degraded, so clearly we need to protect it for the common good.

More gun control or more gun freedom? People with guns are more dangerous to everyone than people without guns, so fewer guns is the way to go.

I know that’s all oversimplified, but I believe the point still stands. Conservatives feel safer when it’s left up to individuals to control things. Liberals feel safer when people are working together for the common good.

The Tug of War

This puts most political questions on a continuum, from “we all do it together” on one side to “we each take care of it ourselves” on the other. Few of us adopt an absolute extreme, since leaving everything to everyone else (not working for our own income, not making our own decisions about how we live, etc.) doesn’t work any better than trying to do everything (raising your own grain, inventing your own Internet, etc.) ourselves.

So the more you accept one idea, the more the other idea is going to seem not only unappealing, but even insidious. If you don’t feel safe without a gun of your own, attempts to control who can have guns are going to feel like somebody is trying to rip away one of the few protections you have, an act that’s threatening at the same time it makes it harder to defend yourself from threats. If you feel like the climate is degrading massively and we all need to adopt some agreements about how to act differently in order to turn things around, then any freeing up of resources that can damage the climate further seems irresponsible and malign.

Will Things Change?

The line between these two opposing ideas will move, so that the country as a whole can become more liberal or more conservative. Additionally, some events can make people feel even less safe, causing them to stand even more firmly on their point of view (do for yourself or do it together), resulting in entrenching, incivility, and deadlock. Fear is what causes entrenchment, and some political figures, especially on larger political stages, try to use this by stoking the fires of fear in their base, which causes their base to become more rigid and intense.

But because we will always have to strike a balance between the two, the line won’t disappear. The two things that can change are where the line is–what the average political stances in the nation are–and how afraid or confident people feel about things.

So How Do We Fix It?

If by “fix it” you mean “advance my side’s agenda,” then improvement comes from reaching out, from sharing information and ideas and education, helping people to see the benefits in what you’re proposing and to understand it better. For instance, the Civil Rights Movement and the #metoo movement both advanced causes by making them more visible and sharing their vision and understanding of the world. The people who took part in these movements challenged assumptions and shared ideas in a way that other people could understand and, in many cases, get behind.

Or you can advance great political figures who understand how to present and structure your priorities so that more people are interested in and attracted to them.

But if you mean “fix it” in terms of narrowing the gap, creating more civility and bipartisanship and effective governance, then the solution is for people to feel heard, understood, and supported. That’s it: creating trust is the magic ingredient. If someone is talking about how we need to arm teachers so that schools won’t be sitting ducks, and if you don’t agree with that, then trying to tell them how wrong they are and how sick that idea is will reinforce their sense that you don’t honor or support individual agency. They’ll feel attacked (because you’ll be attacking them), and they’ll most likely dig in.

Similarly, if someone is saying that we need to impose a new tax on fossil fuels, and if you don’t agree with that, then telling them how they’re stealing your money to bloat government even more, because they’re a control freak who wants everything their way, it will not encourage them to switch to your point of view.

If on the other hand, in either situation, you ask them more about how they envision the idea working, how they would work out some of the difficulties (without characterizing the difficulties as reasons why they are wrong), and why that’s important to them, you’ll understand them better, and they’ll know you understand them better, and that you respect them at least enough to take their opinions seriously. In no part of that do you try to promote your point of view or negate theirs: all you’re doing is establishing trust, and you can’t simultaneously establish trust and try to conquer. Then, it’s at least more likely that the other person will be willing and interested to hear what you have to say, and even to think about what you’ve said. It’s not guaranteed by any means, but it’s much more likely. Now we have civility and understanding, and no one has had to give up their beliefs. We’re in a better situation to sort things out.

I’d like to underscore a crucial part of this: if you want to use this approach, you have to open yourself up first. You probably will need to sit through hearing some things you disagree with massively and don’t want to hear, delivered in a style you don’t like by a person you may not trust. That’s hard, but it’s also the only reason people don’t do this a lot more. To the extent that you can suck it up and just listen to the other person as a human being, conveying respect and attention, you can accomplish something few people these days accomplish: bridging the conservative-liberal gap.


Trusting Books


I’m reading three books in alternation at the moment, and I’m not sure I trust any of them.

Trusting a writer’s competence
The first is a non-fiction book about how people change, and while it’s interesting and entertaining so far, one of their opening topics is some of the research that has been done into the alleged depletion of willpower–experiments where half the subjects are given a task that requires willpower and half aren’t, and then all subjects are given a task that (unknown to them) is impossible. The finding is that the people who have not had to exercise willpower in the first part of the experiment tend to stick with the impossible task longer. The researchers concluded from this that willpower must be a resource that can be used up.

Without going into the subject in great detail here, the conclusion is just a theory of how willpower works, and it isn’t one for which anyone as far as I know of has offered a realistic mechanism. The experimental results (the group that hasn’t had to exert willpower doing better on the task) are interesting, but the interpretation is just an educated guess, and a problematic one–see “Does Willpower Really Get Used Up?.” Yet the authors of the book I’m reading talk about the theory as though it’s established fact and move on from there. Do they really not understand the difference between scientific evidence and a theory used to explain the evidence? This is key for someone who’s going to be interpreting the results of scientific studies.

So for that first book, I’m not sure I trust the authors’ competence, which is a problem.

Trusting a writer’s intentions
The second book is a novel, John Kennedy O’Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. I have a vague idea that I’ve read it before, but all I remembered was how revolting the main character was. Re-reading it, I find that all of the characters are revolting: they’re stupid or weak or pitiable or mindlessly self-centered. I don’t believe that’s what people are actually like, as a rule, and so when an author fills a novel with such characters at the start, then I have to wonder what the author’s view of the world is and where the story is going. In this book, I don’t trust the author’s intentions for the book.

Trusting a writer’s personality
The third book is actually a series of lectures on CD, but since it’s very much like an audiobook, I’m treating it as one. The subject is Russian history, and the lecturer has a great many strong credentials. What I’ve heard so far of the series is interesting, clear, and–as far as I can tell–very well-informed. I feel pretty confident that the guy knows what he’s talking about.  So what’s my problem? I don’t have much of one, except that the author’s photo is on the front of the CD case, and in that photo his smile is one-sided, a type of expression that often means pretend friendliness that actually masks contempt or displeasure. The expression reminds me of an acquaintance whose actions and choices are routinely awful and unkind. So in this case, I don’t trust the author personally–admittedly, based on very scant information. It’s very iffy to try to interpret body language based on a single expression or gesture (see “How to Tell If Someone’s Interested in You, and Other Powers of Body Language“)–but I’m on my guard.

Trust in person
When someone asks “Do you trust me?”, they’re really asking at least three different things:

1) Do you trust my intentions?
2) Do you trust my decisions?
3) Do you trust my skills?

For instance, someone might offer to take care of my kids for me, and if I didn’t trust them on any of those three fronts, then I’d have to say no. If I didn’t trust that they intended to keep my kids safe, happy, and healthy, then that would be a no go. If they did mean well but tended to make bad choices–for instance, if the person were an active alcoholic or very absent-minded–then there would still be a problem, because I wouldn’t trust their ability to make good decisions. And people who mean well and are on the ball but don’t know what they hell they’re doing aren’t good candidates for an important job, either.

This applies to books because writing a book is an important job. If the book is successful at all, it will have anything from hundreds to millions of readers, and each reader is going to devote hours of focused attention to the book, which gives the writer responsibility for thousands to many millions of hours of readers’ time. Personally, if I’m going to invest, say, 6 or 7 hours in reading a book (which is roughly how long it takes an average adult reader to read an average novel), I want to be sure I’m investing that time well.

How it all shakes out
So for the non-fiction book, I’ll read a little further and see whether the authors seem to be taking care with their facts. If not, I’ll stop reading, because bad information is worse than no information at all.

For the novel, I may or may not read a little further to see if there’s any hint of a worldview that I care about. If the author continues to go on depicting a world in which everyone is pathetic and awful, I’ll drop it, because I don’t think that’s a realistic or useful way to look at the world. I wonder if that isn’t what I did the first time I tried reading it.

But where the Russian history lectures are concerned, I think I’ll probably keep listening. Even if the author happens to be an unkind or untrustworthy individual personally (and of course I have no clear reason to believe that he is, just a hint that he might be), I do trust him to do a good job of teaching about Russia through audio lectures, because that’s not an activity that requires any personal interaction. This is one place where writing departs from taking care of children, that in some cases bad people can write good books.

What about you? Do you trust the books you’re reading? Or writing?

Photo by K’s GLIMPSES


How Trust Is Like a Bank Account


It’s true that relationships with other people are not at the center of habit formation: habits form within our individual brains. Yet our relationships with others still influence how our habits form in a huge number of ways: other people can

  • support or undermine our efforts
  • provide a positive or negative example
  • distract us
  • buddy up with us, making habit formation easier
  • be part of the habit we’re trying to change (for instance, if the habit in question is about how we treat others)
  • provide vital information or training, as with a mentor
  • affect our mood through interactions
  • affect our overall happiness based on how healthy our social connections are
  • and so on.

With that in mind, it appears likely that any significant improvements to our relationships with others will tend to aid us in forming habits we want, breaking habits we don’t want, and reaching goals.

To that end, I’d like to pass on a metaphor from Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. While Covey’s book isn’t particularly research-based, he provides what seems to me a useful take on how we approach our lives. Covey’s metaphor is this: trust, an essential basis for constructive relationships, is like a bank account. Says Covey,

An Emotional Bank Account is  a metaphor that describes the amount of trust that’s been built up in a relationship. It’s the feeling of safeness you have with another human being.

If I make deposits into an Emotional Bank Account with you through courtesy, kindness, honesty, and keeping my commitments to you, I build up a reserve. Your trust toward me becomes higher, and I can call upon that trust many times if I need to. I can even make mistakes and that trust level, that emotional reserve, will compensate for it.

Part of the utility of this idea, for me, is in offering a simple approach to getting inside someone else’s point of view in a relationship. If someone else is behaving toward me in a way I don’t like, for instance, there’s a good chance that there’s a trust problem between us. What has my interaction been with this person? Have I given them reasons to trust me and be glad I exist?

Of course relationships are a two-way street, and we can’t always rely on other people to take note of the deposits we’re making, but since we can’t control other people’s thoughts or actions (one reason why worrying about how things “should” be can be so emotionally destructive for us), one of the most empowering things to do in relationships is to try to gauge our current emotional bank balance. Is there a good fund of trust stored up in that account? Or are a few healthy deposits needed to prevent overdrafts?

Photo by Andy on Flickr

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11 Things Schema Therapy Tells Us About Living a Happy Life

States of mind

While I was compiling the schema therapy self-quiz that has run here at The Willpower Engine over the past week (to take it, start here with part 1), I began to realize that the principles behind the schemas amounted to some advice about how we can live happily and fulfillingly. This shouldn’t be surprising to me: after all, the whole point of learning about and working on mental schemas is to live a happier and more fulfilling life, so the fact that the schemas offer recommendations on how to do that shouldn’t be too shocking.

But I sometimes think about psychology the way I think many of us may think about it, as a non-judgmental, unopinionated body of knowledge. This, it seems, is wrong, and it makes sense that it’s wrong. After all, when we look to an area of knowledge to help better our lives, that area had better contain a sense of what “better” means.

Here are some of the ideas I found embedded in descriptions of some of the schemas. These conclusions are mine alone, though, and don’t necessarily reflect the opinions of Dr. Young (who originated schema therapy) or any psychologist whatsoever.

  1. Good relationships require trust, even when there’s some chance that trust will be betrayed.
  2. Being happy and doing well in the world begins with assuming we each have value. There does not have to be a reason we are valuable, although admittedly having solid reasons can be comforting.
  3. We can screw up any number of times and still have value as human beings.
  4. Somethings things go badly, and this is normal and in an important sense OK. It helps to be prepared for particularly bad situations if they’re likely, but it generally doesn’t help to preoccupy ourselves a lot with bad things that might happen.
  5. There is a place for each of us in human society, and it is useful and right and good for us each to seek out some support and some ways we can support others.
  6. When other people tell us things about ourselves, they are often wrong, no matter how certain they sound. (However, sometimes others can provide us with useful and accurate insights.)
  7. Valuing another person’s needs above or below our own often seems to lead to trouble.
  8. We all screw up sometimes, and we all do well at things sometimes.
  9. We aren’t entitled to anything at all: we start with nothing and do our best to get our needs met.
  10. It generally helps to give other people the same consideration we would want ourselves, even if it feels like we’re in a special situation that doesn’t apply to others.
  11. Being approved of is not a useful measure of how valuable a person is.

Photo by Adam Foster | Codefor

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