What produces trust?

I recently read an article in the Wall Street Journal about the biological basis for trust. Paul Zakon explains how the hormone oxytocin promotes feelings of trust. Higher levels of oxytocin correspond to a greater degree of caring and generous behavior. And being the recipient of such behavior increases one’s own oxytocin, as does participating in group activities.

As Zakon acknowledges, there is a lot more to trust than a particular chemical. I found myself thinking about how my own thinking about trust has changed over the years.

When I was growing up, my ideal was to be self-reliant. I didn’t want to have to rely on anyone else. My parents expected me to act and think independently, rather than being told what to do and how to think.

It didn’t come at all easy to me – I hated having go places on my own (other than school and the familiar stores around town), and I lacked confidence in my ability to make certain decisions on my own. But I wanted to be able to be independent, and my heroes in the books I read were people who were like that.

I don’t remember ever having anyone I felt I could confide in until I was in high school, after I came to faith in Christ at a fundamentalist church. Even there, I felt close to only a few people, but I did finally have two friends – one my own age and one who was a mother of two younger children – whom I trusted enough to talk about things I didn’t share with anyone else.

One of the things I admitted to very few people – though I did try once talking to the youth pastor about it – was my doubts about my salvation. There was a lot of teaching at the church about assurance of salvation, and not having that assurance called into question whether one really was saved – since it was the Holy Spirit’s work to produce the assurance, and He would not fail in His work. If I didn’t have assurance, it must be my fault, either because I wasn’t trusting God for salvation or because, although saved, I wasn’t trusting Him enough to obey Him – and disobedience would block my experience of assurance of salvation.

Books and sermons on the topic made trust a matter of the will, not the emotions. The common illustration was that of choosing to sit in a chair, trusting that it would hold you up. My objections to the validity of that example were two-fold. To begin with, while I might have no experience of sitting in a particular chair, to know ahead of time if it would hold me up, I had plenty of experience sitting in chairs in general. If a chair looked sturdy, I would sit in it, because experience told me it would hold me up. If it failed, I would probably distrust chairs in general for a while.

Secondly, there was no question, when I sat in a chair, whether I really was putting my full weight on it. There was no mystical “assurance of sitting” that other people seemed to experience while I did not. When it came to salvation, however, I thought I was trusting in Christ, yet I lacked the assurance that I was. Yes, I had evidence of changed behavior in my life, at least in some areas, but was that the result of a changed heart with regard to God, or to the influence of better role models in my life and the natural maturing process over the teen years?

I continued to be plagued by those doubts until an awful experience at age 26 changed my attitudes both toward God and other people. While being raped by a man who kicked down the door of my apartment at night, I was sure I was going to be killed at any moment (because that’s what happened to rape victims on TV). To my surprise, I found that while I was not any more certain of going to Heaven than I had been previously, I did trust God to do whatever was right in regard to my eternal destiny.

I couldn’t trust Him to answer prayers, however, because I had specifically prayed for safety that night before going to bed. Being told that God had kept me safe through the experience rather than from it helped some, but for a long time I couldn’t bring myself to ask God for anything (my prayers consisted primarily of thanking Him for what I did have – not necessarily a bad thing). I had been taught that prayer without trusting that God would answer was useless, and I couldn’t trust Him to answer (in a positive sense – to say that God always answers but that sometimes it is “No” seems to make it meaningless to speak of trusting Him to answer) since He hadn’t on the night I was raped.

I also felt a new wariness around other people. I had always thought of myself as a relatively trusting person, despite my disinclination to really open up to anyone. I had always assumed that people around me were more or less trustworthy, and I had found it difficult to make myself take appropriate safety measures. (I did have the door to my apartment locked that night, but not with the deadbolt, because it had never worked properly since I moved in, but I hadn’t thought that important enough to get the landlord to fix it.)

After the rape I felt a new hardness, a new disposition to be suspicious of the motives of other people. Gradually my hyper-vigilance about safety relaxed, though I can’t say how my readiness to trust people compares now with when I was young. Living in small communities in the Midwest has helped, because people do seem to be genuinely concerned about one another. (But now, when we visit a larger city, I feel perhaps even more ill-at-ease than I used to, when I was used to the crowds and noise.)

I have also realized, over the years and through relations with different people, how little trust seems to depend on logic and conscious choice. The sermons I used to hear about trusting God based on past experiences of His goodness, just as we did with people, seemed to represent trust as a rational choice. But I find that, in regard to which people I find myself inclined to trust, there seems to be relatively little correlation between my previous experiences with them and how much I trust them.

I remember visiting a church for the first time and wondering if I had met the pastor before, because I felt an immediate trust in him and everything he said. I tried to find some similarity in his appearance or behavior to someone else I knew and trusted, but I couldn’t identify one. Even after I had been told negative things about him by someone with personal experience (of several years) of how he treated people, it took a long time to lose that feeling of trust in him.

Another person who comes to mind is a man I came to trust despite having initially disliked him. I eventually came to know him well enough to know that he was not trustworthy, but again, it took time for my feelings to catch up with what I knew in my head about him. Even stranger, to my mind, was my experience of finding myself trusting someone whom I hadn’t liked to begin with and still didn’t like. Then because I did trust her, I got to know her and came to like her.

Those experiences make sense in light of Zakon’s article about the role of oxytocin. I don’t know why the “trust molecule” would be produced in greater quantities with certain people, despite my lack of experience with them or even negative experience, but it would explain my otherwise somewhat mysterious feelings of trust in those people.

I certainly don’t want to reduce it all to chemicals. Some people will probably react negatively to Zakon, concerned that he reduces morality to biology and removes God from the equation. (I have no idea what he thinks about God, but I am sure some people will jump on his work as evidence that morality does not require God or even the existence of the soul.)

My first thoughts when reading the article were, in fact, along those lines, but the fact is that humans are biological beings and use chemicals to produce all our thoughts, feelings, and actions. That doesn’t mean that we are only the sum of our chemicals, just that we can’t – in this life at least – do or think anything without them.

I am reminded of the time a doctor gave me medicine for low blood pressure. While browsing in a bookstore in Madrid (where I was a graduate student), I had nearly fainted after crouching for too long to look at something on a low shelf. Half an hour later when I got to school I was still “white as a ghost,” and the office administrator arranged for me to see a doctor. His English was not as good as my Spanish (it took me a while to figure out that “blood glasses” meant blood vessels), so I was not clear on everything he said. But he gave me a prescription that he said would boost my blood pressure and reduce the likelihood of fainting.

I took the medicine the next day, and proceeded to spend the entire day in a state of extreme anxiety. Normally laid-back and far from talkative, I was talking a mile a minute and “bouncing off the walls” according to my classmates. I was worried about an impending crisis although I couldn’t remember what it was – I didn’t have any exams coming up or major assignments not yet done. It took until nighttime for me to realize that my anxiety arose not from any circumstances in my life but just from the pill I had taken that morning.

I threw the bottle out, and only later remembered that the doctor had said that I might feel my heart racing for the first few days, then I would adjust to the medicine and feel normal again. It was strange to realize how indistinguishable the feelings of anxiety created by a pill were from the feelings of anxiety in response to worrying circumstances.

I suppose that if I often felt those same physiological phenomena in the absence of worrying circumstances, perhaps my mental connection of the physical feelings and my outlook/attitude would diminish. But since the normal experience is for the physical feelings, emotions, and mindset to all work together, it’s natural enough that on any given occasion I can’t easily tell which is the cause and which is the effect.

I assume it’s the same way with oxytocin. Zakon’s experiments showed that he could induce generous behavior by spraying subjects’ nasal passages with synthetic oxytocin. Normally oxytocin is produced in circumstances where trust is warranted, and not produced (or produced in lower amounts) where it is not. The fact that oxytocin is the chemical used by the brain in situations of trust does not mean that trust has no meaning except as a word to describe biologically-induced behavior.

As scientists learn more about how our physiology and behavior are linked, I imagine we’ll learn about more chemicals that are tied to particular behaviors. For some people, that may be seen as an excuse for what is normally considered poor behavior. For others, it may be seen as a reason to discount much of what is taught in the name of science.

For me, it will be a fascinating new window into the mysteries of how and why we are the way we are.


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