June 19, 2019 5:25 pm

A new perspective on an old problem

Many people think of trust as a moral issue – ‘good people’ are to be trusted and ‘bad people’ are not.  We also go the other direction in our thinking – if I don’t trust someone they must be bad.  This framing is problematic for several reasons. The biggest problem is that it ignores the laws of nature.

Trust from a neuro-behavioural perspective is related to predictability.  If we predict someone will behave in a particular way and they do, we trust them. But if they don’t do what we were expecting then trust is diminished.

Human brains are sensitive to change.  This is because any change could present a danger and our brain’s main job is to keep us safe. So if something around us changes, we automatically allocate brain power to first determine if it represents a potential threat and second to determine how we need to adjust to take into account this change.  Changes include actual tangible things but also include deviations from our predictions. This is where trust comes in.

When we think about what is going to happen next or how someone is going to behave, we generally have an idea about the range of behaviour that we expect.  For example, if someone invites me to come to a meeting to discuss a work-related issue, I expect/predict that when I arrived there will be a room with chairs and a table where we will sit for our discussion.  The range of my expectation might extend to meeting in a café or maybe even having a walking meeting.  But what if I show up and my host expects me to sit on the floor?  And what if I am then handed a bowl of murky liquid and expected to drink it before we begin our discussion? In this case, my expectations have not been met.  This is exactly what I encountered when I moved to Fiji.  It is not that I have never sat on the floor.  In fact, I had even had kava on other occasions. But it was not in the realm of what I predicted for a business meeting.  At that point, I knew there could be many other things that I might not have expected and needed to pay careful attention to my host to predict what she would do next and what was expected of me. This is the situation we find ourselves in whenever we are working with people who are different from us.

It is normal to make predictions about what we expect from others.  Otherwise, every time we enter into a discussion, agreement or even when we simply begin a new relationship it would be like our first time.  It takes a lot of brain energy to do new things.  We have to pay close attention, we have to learn and remember new things.  We also have to problem-solve and make decisions that are not necessary when we are already familiar with what to expect.  Our brains are wired to remember the ‘rules of the game’ and apply the same rules the next time we do the same thing.

The more we do something the stronger our predictions. After a while, the predictions we have in place ‘just seem right’. And any deviation from what we expect ‘seems wrong’.  This is particularly true with regard to predicting other people’s behaviour. Through the millennia we have been dependent on each other for survival: as such we have become incredibly social beings – our brains are highly attuned to the actions of other people.  Much of our early learning is related to learning ‘how to behave’ in particular situations e.g. a ball game versus a library.  In addition to what our parents and teachers tell us, as we grow up we also learn by watching and mimicking others and eventually we develop a set of expectations about how to interact with others in most common situations.

As long as nothing changes, our past experience is a good indicator of the way things will be in the future.  For the most part, this works great. From a neuro-behavioural perspective, it takes less brain power, is energy efficient and therefore it feels comfortable when things are as we expect.  But what happens when we work with someone who grew up with different expectations – different ‘rules of the game’? In this case, people will be behaving in ways we do not expect.

This deviation from our predictions is disconcerting. Our brain interprets this departure from expectations as a potential threat and our trust is reduced – after all, we anticipated they would behave in accordance with what we have come to expect and they did not – how could we trust them?  Our mistrust is exacerbated if the other person continues to frustrate our expectations and we come to believe they (and potentially others like them) are not trustworthy.

Fortunately, science provides some cues to make it easier to build trust.

Knowing that discomfort and even ‘alarm’ are natural reactions to disruptions to our predictions helps us to understand and modify our responses when working with people who are different.  A first step is to acknowledge that your predictions are based on past experiences – it does not make them right or good, just familiar. This type of self-awareness is essential for working in with new people or in environments that are changing.

When we are dealing with the unfamiliar it requires more effort. Recognise that working with people who are different from you does take more energy and will involve paying attention and actively holding your expectations ‘in check’.  It will not seem familiar or easy and that is okay.  It is not dangerous but you have to regulate your emotion and thinking to remain open.  Openness enables you to experience something new without immediately rejecting or embracing it.  Deliberately increasing your openness to other ways of being/working means you are less likely to be blindsided by your own biased predictions of how a person ‘should behave’ and are therefore better able to learn and thus make more accurate predictions of how a person will behave in the future.

A final lesson we can take from neurobiology is that our brains do adapt.  We are social beings, our brains are built to learn from other people. It does not mean it is easy – learning often is not, but it is key to success in a world that is changing.  Scientists have found that even neural networks and corresponding behaviour patterns that have been in place for our entire lifetimes can be shifted with conscious effort and practice.  This ability to adapt is fundamental to our survival as a species as well as simply achieving our goals as individuals.  This is because what is required and rewarded in the past may not be so in the future. Exposing ourselves to diverse ways of thinking and behaving increases our repertoire of responses and thus increases our ability to be successful when the circumstances change.

Openness, awareness and adaptiveness are fundamental to brain fitness and ultimately our success.  Diversity of thought and behaviour is a catalyst for strengthening all three.  So when you feel distrust towards someone, ask yourself ‘is this because they have responded in a way I did not expect?’ Then step back and consider the lens that caused you to predict a different response – this is your bias, theirs will be different.  Seize the opportunity you have in front of you to learn something new.  You don’t have to agree or change your own response – just remain open enough for long enough to understand how that response made sense in their world. Remember your way of being will seem equally as surprising to them – take the time to help them see from your perspective without expectation that they embrace your way either.  This will help you both make better predictions about each other and is the foundation for building trust.


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Dr Connie Henson, the author of BrainWise Leadership, designs change leadership programs informed by the latest neuroscience research through Learning Quest.

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Photo Credit: Bernard Hermant on Unsplash; Tushar Tyagi on Unsplash; Di Johnson on Unsplash; Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

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