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What neuroscience can tell us about the breakdown of trust in Washington

We don't trust people because they seem nice or virtuous or trustworthy. We trust them because they get us the good stuff.
REUTERS/Jason Reed
We don’t trust people because they seem nice or virtuous or trustworthy. We trust them because they get us the good stuff.

The extraordinary breakdown of our political system during the debt ceiling crisis of recent weeks prompted science writer Jonah Lehrer (“How We Decide” and “Proust Was a Neuroscientist”) to reflect on what neuroscience can tell us about the psychological state of trust.

Obviously, trust has been in short supply in Washington lately.

But, as Lehrer reports in his Frontal Cortex blog, good research about trust is also hard to come by. “At the moment, the neuroscience of trust remains extremely provisional,” he says. “We still don’t know why some societies are awash in trust while others are forced to do without, subsisting on nothing but the instinctive faith in close friends and family. We don’t know why some people are so much more trusting than others or what happens when the bonds of trust are broken.”

“Nevertheless,” he adds,  “there have been some interesting glimmers into the formation of trust in the brain.”

One of those glimmers is a 2005 study by a team of neuroscientists from the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Tex., and the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

Here’s Lehrer’s description of the study:

The experiment revolved around a simple economic game in which getting the maximum reward required the strangers to trust one another. However, if one of the players grew especially selfish, he or she could always steal from the pot and erase the tenuous sense of trust. By monitoring the players’ brains, the scientists were able to predict whether or not someone would steal money several seconds before the theft actually occurred.
The secret was a cortical area known as the caudate nucleus, which closely tracked the payouts from the other player. (The caudate is usually discussed in the context of addiction, since it plays a central role in modulating our expectation of pleasure.) [The study’s authors] noticed that whenever the caudate exhibited reduced activity, trust tended to break down.
But what exactly is the caudate computing? How do we decide whom to trust with our money? At first, the caudate didn’t get excited until the subjects actually trusted one another and garnered their separate rewards. But over time this brain area started to expect those rewards, so that it fired long before the money actually arrived. It’s only at this point — once we take those future benefits for granted — that the bonds of trust between the players began to form.
The moral is that trust is ultimately about the expectation of rewards. We see trust as such a noble trait, but it’s ultimately rooted in a greedy calculation, emanating from our primal dopaminergic circuitry. …
In other words, we don’t trust people because they seem nice or virtuous or trustworthy, whatever those adjectives mean. We trust them because they get us the good stuff, delivering what [one of the study’s authors] refers to as the “social juice” of reciprocity. When we say we trust someone, what we’re really saying is that they’re a reliable source of what we want. I scratch your back, you scratch mine.

Lehrer then speculates on what this study might say about the current dysfunction in Washington:

If trust is about the distribution of rewards — about learning to expect bonuses from others — then it’s going to be a lot harder to share those rewards in an age of scarcity and deficits. For the first time in decades, congresspeople aren’t trading pork barrel projects and tax breaks — they’re negotiating steep budget cuts. Those cuts might be necessary, but they’re not going to excite the caudat or generate that requisite burst of “social justice.” The traditional means of developing trust among Congresspeople have disappeared.

You can read Lehrer’s article at Wired.com.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 08/01/2011 - 10:30 am.

    I’m not confident these studies have very much to say about the nature, elements, and source of what we call “trust”. The subject matter is much broader than their economic game imagines, and I don’t think measuring the excitation of part of the brain casts much light, either.

    But here’s something about trust which common sense and experience shows to be true: The rate of building trust is completely out of proportion to its destruction.

    In other words, trust is built by the inch but destroyed by the yard, so to speak.

  2. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 08/01/2011 - 12:31 pm.

    The foundation of a free society is trust, the basis of trust is morality, and morality is nothing more than the standard of behavior in a civilized society.

    Or as George W. Bush so eloquently said, “Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice … I ain’t getting fooled again.”

  3. Submitted by Bruce Leier on 08/02/2011 - 07:16 am.

    So Lehrer drinks the Kool-aide of “cuts are necessary”. Necessary to move the top 1% to hold 99% of USA net worth.

  4. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/02/2011 - 07:27 am.

    I’m sorry but this whole premise is bogus:

    “We still don’t know why some societies are awash in trust while others are forced to do without, subsisting on nothing but the instinctive faith in close friends and family. We don’t know why some people are so much more trusting than others or what happens when the bonds of trust are broken.”

    There millions of pages available from a variety of discipline’s on this subject. Everyone form anthropologists to ethnographers have studied this. All this tell us that Mr. Leher doesn’t understand, and neuroscience has little to say. There’s no reason to expect neuroscience will “tell” us anything we don’t already know, or provide a more useful explanation.

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