How can I earn your trust?

Trust - how we win and keep it

Those who trust others make themselves vulnerable. Because he may be betrayed, lied to or betrayed. The brain researcher Niels Birbaumer explains why it is nevertheless important to take this risk

Professor Birbaumer, why are you, as a brain researcher, concerned with the rather diffuse feeling of “trust”?

PROF. DR. NIELS BIRBAUMER: I am fascinated by the fact that trust is so difficult to grasp scientifically, but that it nevertheless permeates our entire social interaction. Hardly a day goes by without some institution, party or company that manufactures consumer products, such as cars, advertising or even begging to place their trust.

Even on a small scale, this emotion is always present. In relationships with partners and friends, we try to “win” trust, we don't want to “lose” or “break” it. Just as if it were a treasure that needs to be preserved and increased.

And isn't that also trust?

It is quite a treasure because it enables the individual to be stronger than he would be alone. Trust brings people together. It is as if a blessing, peace-making force resides in this feeling. But: if you trust, you make a conscious decision to make yourself vulnerable.

What exactly do you mean by that?

If, for example, an artist swings across a ring, held solely by the hand of one partner, he only does so because he assumes that the other will do his best. But he cannot know. He can only trust and to a certain extent chooses the middle path between knowing and not knowing, between security and insecurity.

In short: he is risking something. Because every act of trust also harbors the possibility of harm. This applies to many areas - for example when you trust a partner who is cheating on you; if you trust a politician who doesn't keep his promises afterwards.

Do many conflicts arise nowadays because we seem to be constantly in a crisis of confidence, in politics as well as in private?

It is no different today than it used to be. Today it is politicians that many people do not trust, in earlier times it was the kings. Because of the Internet, however, communication about conflicts is increasing massively, which strengthens the impression that there are more crises and less trust these days. In fact, only the words multiply.

What role does trust play in conflicts?

Perhaps the most important function of trust is to reduce arguments. The point of trusting behavior is precisely that disappointments and conflicts are avoided. Ultimately, we cannot survive in a group if we do not place a minimum of trust in the other members - for example that they will protect us, for example in the family.

How do you define trust?

Trust is a feeling that strengthens bonds, creates harmony and unity. But it is only necessary, i.e. only arises when information about the intentions or possibilities of the other person is missing.

The trusting person gives up control, he has no influence on what happens. He can only assume that everything will happen in his favor. So trust is a risky feeling. His opponent is fear. Because even that can unfold if we don't have full control.

Can you elaborate on that?

Scientists are still unable to explain exactly how trust is created in the brain. But so much can already be said: If the activity in certain regions of the organ of thought, which make us feel fear, decreases, then trust increases. These very old brain structures react when we receive signals that indicate danger, such as a shadow flicking past or an unpleasant noise. If these areas are not very active, people feel trust.

So the less fear we are, the stronger the trust becomes.

Yes, but only up to a point. With the help of brain scanners, we were able to show in studies that people who feel almost no fear, i.e. who are psychopathic, cannot trust either. So it takes a minimum of fear to seek trust at all. It is what drives people to open up - as long as it does not get out of hand.

What's the best way to gain someone else's trust?

By fulfilling the expectations this person has of you. For example, I no longer travel with Deutsche Bahn because they have too often disappointed my expectation of reaching a destination on time. I no longer trust her. This is not due to a general aversion to trains, because in Switzerland I only use public transport because my expectations are always met there.

In addition to expectations, gentle, brief touches, such as a hand on the arm or a hug, can also create trust between people. You can create a sense of wellbeing that alleviates anxiety. But of course that has to fit into the cultural context, otherwise it is easy to cross borders, for example when a man touches a woman.

If my trust has been abused, how can I avoid becoming a suspicious person?

Expose yourself to as many situations as possible that are likely not to disappoint. In order to deal with a breach of trust, people increasingly need confirmation that trust is generally a good thing. This is typical behavior in relationship conflicts, for example after a partner has fled. Then the cheated person intuitively often seeks more contact with friends and family - with those people who deserve trust.

Learn more? You can read the complete interview with Niels Birbaumer in GEO WISSEN No. 59 "The Art of Arguing". You can easily order the magazine here in the GEO shop.