Distrust: Who Should We Trust?

Consciously and unconsciously, we tend to divide the world into people and groups we find trustworthy and others we don’t. Where we draw that line matters a lot. When we get it right, we avoid being harmed by those who have hostile intentions or are merely undependable. In this way, appropriate levels of distrust are critically important in steering us away from bad decisions and costly outcomes. At the same time, knowing who we can trust enables us to build valuable relationships that enhance the purpose in our lives and the effectiveness of our collective efforts.

These judgments, however, get made with limited information of uncertain reliability. Sometimes they’re based on little more than fleeting interactions, rumors, or stereotypes. As a result, our conclusions about the trustworthiness of particular people, groups, and sources of information are frequently flawed and problematic. On the one hand, unwarranted suspicions can lead us to discount wise counsel, to reject promising opportunities, and to inadvertently turn potential allies into adversaries. On the other hand, misplaced trust can have devastating consequences. Betrayal by people we believe have our best interests at heart is more than just emotionally painful. It can cost us our livelihoods, our savings, our security, and the possibility of a brighter future.

It’s regrettable, then, that our inclinations to either trust or distrust are soft targets for psychological manipulation — including by those who share neither our circumstances nor our priorities. The strategies used for this purpose often take advantage of two natural tendencies: first, our penchant, all else being equal, to trust and give the benefit of the doubt to those who hold positions of authority; and second, our inclination to adopt a distrustful posture toward those we see as different, or those we’ve been taught to view as “outsiders.”