The Year That Trust Died

On Halloween, 1938 the voice of Orson Welles voice came across the airwaves marauding as a newscaster. Beginning with the words, “We interrupt this broadcast…” he told the story of a Martian invasion in progress.  Widespread panic was followed by widespread anger when the hoax was discovered. Many attempted to sue for “mental anguish” and “personal injury”.  No one likes to be fooled.

It’s a laughable story to a modern person.  Can you imagine panicking about a Martian invasion simply because the radio told you to?  How could our forefathers have been so naïve? Yet behind the joke lies a serious question:  Was there once a world where most people told the truth? Was there a time when someone was trustworthy until proven otherwise?  It seems that whatever we’ve gained in street smarts, we’ve lost in faith.  Our trust is like a diamond mine that has been stripped down to bedrock and all that’s left are tiny veins of cautious naivete.  And for those remnants, the scavengers abound, digging for our trust with their deceptive ads, internet pop-ups, and email scams featuring Nigerian princes who want to “wire us a million dollars” for some incongruous reason. They’re all trying to find the last gem of innocence that’s not yet been plundered. What happened to trust?

The Year That Trust Died

According to Maslansky, et al, Trust died seventy years later, in the year 2008.  Their book “The Language of Trust” suggests that with the span of a year, the “Trust Barometer found that three out of four Americans trust business less than the year before.”  The old scams of snake oil, used car salesmen, and last-chance-offers have been left in the dust with this turbocharger of lemons called the internet. In gigabytes per second, we are pursued like never before with banners, adware, spam, viruses, links, etc. On the other hand, the internet also brings us a new level of honesty.  Bad products cannot defend themselves against the reviews of real people.  Some websites unravel hoaxes or smoke out dishonest news stories and dissect misleading political speeches.  If you’ve ever been professionally naked on camera or unprofessionally drunk in a karaoke bar…well it’s probably out there somewhere on the web. It’s hard to hide the truth now.  Ironically, however, all of this ‘revealed truth’ just makes us more cynical.  Silhouetted against the backdrop of all the contradictions and denials it’s hard to know who to believe and so we just give up on trust in general.

What’s the Risk in Safety?

Isn’t it better to be cautious anyways? It’s harder to fool a skeptic, after all.  The problem is that caution is risky too.  Trust is like money—it goes to waste if you don’t do something with it.  If I stash my savings in a mattress until my old age, I’ve taken a huge risk. For one thing, inflation itself will make the money into worthless old bills.  Then there are the potential earnings that have been lost.  Most important of all you lose whatever the money might have added to your life story: the travel, adventures, gifts, education, etc.  In money and trust and so many things, the greatest risk is not to risk at all.

Skepticism and New Ideas

This skepticism has another great risk: the inability to adopt new ideas.  When we listen to someone we’ve never met, saying something we’ve never heard, there’s an opportunity.  The value of the message could become immeasurable in our life, but we’d have to risk some inconvenience and a little trust in the unknown.  However, nowadays we don’t listen for news, we pursue it.  We can choose the websites, bloggers, and TV channels that are already aligned with our viewpoints and preferences.  If I only go to websites I’ve bookmarked, blogs I’ve subscribed to, and listen to Pandora radio “stations” that I’ve created, then when exactly is something outside my worldview ever going to get “in”?  How is something fantastic ever going to “rock my world” if new things rarely enter it?  Though we have access to more ideas than ever before, we give ourselves only small portholes to see the world through.  Anything larger than that and we fear of drowning in the overwhelming sea of options, crashing through into already complicated lives.

A Greater Trust

Perhaps there’s less trust in the world because there is less to trust.  Or maybe it just seems that way, who knows?  But if trust is a must, then what do we do? (Dr. Seuss might like that, so why wouldn’t you?!)

Maybe we just need to start with a tenuous trust in life itself. Trusting that if we commit ourselves to taking risks, then our instincts will tell us which ones to take.  That regardless of what happens, we’ll bounce back and find our way.  That if someone makes a fool of us (honestly, people will risk their lives before they risk embarrassment), our self-esteem will shield us from any great injury. And perhaps someday your biography, like those of the great men and women of history, will show that the greatest risks yielded the greatest rewards.


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A Committee of Myself

The committee members are all assembled.  It’s Friday and the morning is leaning into the afternoon, the refuse of lengthy deliberations scattered around the room.  A decision has to be made.  As the chairperson, you make a final request for opinions on the issue at hand: will it be a ‘Yes’ or a ‘No’?

“It will never work,” Frank says.  Bad experiences have made him a sissy with anything risky.

Allie is wondering what people will think of her vote.

In a monotone voice George begins to elaborate, “It’s obvious what we should do, if you think about it…” He’s the logical guy. He’s Spock.

Jim is lazy.  If there’s a low-impact option that’s what he will support.

Gina is a humanitarian.  She will choose whatever seems best for society as a whole.

Joanne looks forward, “Are we going to like this decision 5 years from now?”

Jennifer is ready for the weekend and just wants get on with it.  At this moment, she doesn’t care much what the decision is.  That could change by Monday, though.

You close your eyes and the cacophony of voices seems to rise as your spirits fall.  There’s still no clear decision.

The Committee of My Mind

Welcome to the committee of my mind.  Now that you’ve met the members, what do you think of them?  Who would you listen to the most?  Can you identify the members of your own “committee”? Have you decided which ones should be ignored?

Writer Cecil Murphey mentions a unique approach to sorting out the options in hard decisions.  Instead of asking, “Do I want to do A or B?”, he asks, “Which PART of me wants to do A?  What about B?” We ought make sure that the best “members” of our committee are driving the vote.

It’s OK to listen to these voices in your head.  It won’t make you crazy and it might make you brilliant.  The more you listen, the more familiar they will become.  You can even give them names like Fear, Compassion, Prejudice, Reason, Greed, Intuition, and so on. You can say to yourself in the whisper of your thoughts, “Prejudice, I hear you, but you’re voice is not relevant here.  Intuition, speak louder because Greed is drowning you out.”

Facing a big decision? What part of you is saying yes or saying no?  Which parts of you are speaking loudest?  Which members of your “committee” should be asked to leave the discussion?


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Decision Making and Bias: The George Washington Story Part 2

Facing their biases may probably be one of the hardest thing that a decision-maker or leader will ever have to do.  Facing our bias requires requires accepting a situation and the people involved “as-is”, without being distracted by what we expect want them to be.  The leader who believes that they have no bias is a hazardous decision-maker.

While the guy on our dollar bill looks pretty egalitarian, Washington had to deal with his own significant biases in order to be successful as a leader.  Some of the biases he faced included Stereotypes, Style, and Sunk Costs.


When it came to stereotypes or prejudice, it seemed everyone had something to say about the soldiers from New England, including Washington himself. Of the New Englanders or “Yankees” Washington would say that they were “exceeding dirty and nasty” with an “unaccountable kind of stupidity…”.  In addition to being hard to manage, they were known to avoid bathing and washing their clothes because they felt that this was “women’s work”.  Seriously, what could be worse than an army of stinky misogynists?!  And yet it was from among these New Englanders that he chose his two most trustworthy generals, Nathanael Green and Henry Knox. The ability to push through his own bias saved his country and his life.


By nature, Washington was a perfectionist.  As such he was actually better suited to serve in the British army, where professional soldiers and trained officers dutifully carried out well-orchestrated battle plans. It’s said that during the chaos of war, he would send instructions home regarding the details of his renovations, including specific placement of curtains, etc. Nowadays we might have called him meticulous or even “anal-retentive” (thank you Freud for those images…).  With such a small rebel force, his choices in battle had to be the exact opposite of his inclinations. Things like guerilla warfare and sneaky nighttime maneuvers across the Delaware may not have been his style but they became his destiny.  Somehow Washington came to accept the sloppy army and chaotic war that he begrudgingly inherited.  Troops aren’t curtains; he had to learn to guide what he could not control.  Instead of making choices based on how things “should be” he worked with what is.  It’s strange to think that our greatest triumphs in life could be in some area that we’re not good at—or even want to be.

Sunk Costs

The bias of “Sunk Costs” is a strong one (as we discussed here).  Whenever we’ve invested a lot of energy or resources into a plan, we are biased to stay with it even long after it’s become a bad idea. In Part 1 we discussed Washington’s indecisiveness at the disastrous battle of Fort Washington (which was, incidentally, the first “Pentagon” in American history).  The issue of “Sunk Costs” was surely a source of this indecisiveness.  Imagine investing 2 months of effort building a strong fort only to abandon it.  He had to learn to “know when to hold ‘em…know when to walk away…” at least 200 years before Kenny Rogers would deliver this sound advice.

Bias: Wishes and Expectations

Our good decisions will forever be threatened by our wishes and expectations.  Many times the choice is between “having it our way” vs. being successful. To sum it up, biographer John McCullough writes, “It was such resolve and an acceptance of mankind and circumstances as they were, not as he wished them to be, that continued to carry Washington through.” -John McCullough, “1776”.

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Decision-Making and Physical Touch

Sometimes the decision is in your hands…literally. An interesting research study by Ackerman, Nocera, and Bargh suggests that our sense of touch (ie hard vs. soft, rough vs. smooth, heavy vs. light) may actually influence our decisions about people and situations.

The authors suggest that these sensations of touch become attached to the concepts they represent, i.e. if someone says their roommate is “really rough” and you also know that bark is “rough”, then you might imagine that a chat with this roommate might feel a little like rubbing your face on a piece of bark.

In this study, the researchers found that if someone was evaluating an employee while sitting in a hard chair, they would rate the employee as more stable, rigid, and strict. They also found that heavy objects subconsciously conveyed “importance”. Participants holding a heavier clipboard would assess job candidates as “more serious” but also “less able to get along with others”. People holding the heavier clipboards would also contribute more money to serious social causes. In a puzzle exercise, they found that using smooth vs. rough puzzle pieces caused participants to 1. judge social interactions differently, 2. make different financial risks and 3. use different approaches to bargaining.

Never try to buy a car or negotiate a raise while wearing a wool sweater. Consider satin underpants instead. Everything seems easy in satin underpants. Heidi Grant Halvorson, PhD

Referencing this study, writer Heidi Grant Halvorson, PhD made the clever assessment that we should “Never try to buy a car or negotiate a raise while wearing a wool sweater. Consider satin underpants instead. Everything seems easy in satin underpants.”

So what does this mean for decision making?

Can we only trust our decision making instincts when holding (and wearing) nothing? Should congress deliberate in a weightless environment–perhaps a space station? Should we give judges squishy gavels to “soften” their verdicts? These studies, of course, are staged and may not carry the same intensity of decision-making that we use in life. But it does show us 2 things: 1. we are easily and mysteriously biased. 2. Our sensory environment matters when it comes to decisions.

Environments of Decision and Action

If our physical senses impact our thinking, maybe we should consider our immediate environment when it comes to important interactions. For myself, I know I’m a tougher negotiator over the phone if I’m at some kind of “desky” type thing with an office chair. Sweat pants or bunny slippers are going to take me down a notch. So maybe I should negotiate on a house price at my desk, but put off comforting a troubled relative until I can get home to the cushy sofa. Trying to get into medical school years ago, I would often study in an empty classroom. Instead of sitting in a students desk, I found that standing, speaking and writing on the chalkboard improved my exam scores dramatically. Passers-by may have thought me insane, but subconsciously I was telling my brain that I was a teacher who, naturally, would know the answers.

Perhaps flipping a fancy pen in your hands makes ideas come faster (even if you will eventually type them into a computer). Maybe different chairs create different attitudes. And it’s possible that those stylish but a-bit-too-tight jeans could actually backfire and turn you into a cranky or insensitive dinner date.

So, think back to times that you’ve been “in the zone”. What do you remember holding? Sitting on? Were you standing? Were you dressed up or casual?

When do you feel confident or even brilliant? What objects connect you to inspiration or confidence? What’s the environment like when you are fearless?

Can we touch relics of a past success and bring that strength through into the future?