We’re not supposed to trust others. Look at the headlines. Read the blogs. Study the survey data. It seems that everyone is wary, that everyone is just looking out for themselves. But a sense of social trust and togetherness can be restored.
In The Leap, bestselling author Ulrich Boser shows how the emerging research on trust can improve our lives, rebuild our economy, and strengthen society. As part of this engaging and deeply reported narrative, Boser visits a radio soap opera in Rwanda that aims to restore the country’s broken trust, profiles the man who brought honesty to one of the most corrupt cities in Latin America, and explains how a college dropout managed to con his way into American high society. Boser even goes skydiving to see if the experience will increase his levels of oxytocin, the so-called "trust hormone.”
A powerful mix of hard science and compelling storytelling, The Leap explores how we trust, why we trust, and what we can all do to deepen social trust. The audiobook includes insightful policy recommendations along with surprising new data on the state of social trust in America today.
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About the Author
Ulrich Boser writes about social issues, and his work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post. He is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan think tank, and his first book, The Gardner Heist, was a national bestseller.
Read an Excerpt
Late in the afternoon of October 13, 1972, Flight 571 lift ed off from the Mendoza airport in western Argentina. A rugby team had chartered the dual-engine Fairchild to play a game in Chile. The men were young and well-heeled, aspiring lawyers, doctors, and architects, and as the plane rose into the Andean sky, they read comics and played card games.1 A few tossed a rugby football down the aisle, yelling “Think fast!”2 When a spot of turbulence shook the plane, they whooped and hollered like bullfighters.3
As the Fairchild flew over a narrow, mountainous pass, the plane slipped into a dense bank of clouds. Strong winds started to rattle the aircraft . At one point, the Fairchild dropped a few hundred feet, and when the clouds finally drew apart again, a rocky cliff appeared just beyond one of the wings.
“Is it normal to fly so close?” one of the passengers asked.4
“I don’t think so” his friend answered.
Moments later, some long shudders, a metallic scream, a rocky crag scraped the bottom of the fuselage. The tail section crashed away. The wings broke off . The plane soared for a moment or two before, skidding down the slope of a mountain “like a toboggan.”5 Some of the passengers died in their seats. Others bled to death. But among the lifeless bodies and splintered luggage, more than two dozen passengers survived, spending the night huddled together in the wreckage of the broken plane.
The Fairchild had landed in a snowy valley, miles away from the nearest village. The temperature was brutally cold, and the team had packed for a trip to the ocean, not the mountains. No one had any warm coats.6 There were no blankets. To survive, the men began dividing themselves into teams. Two of the young men were medical students, and they took care of the wounded. Another group figured out how to make fresh water by melting snow into empty wine bottles.7 Others straightened up the plane and aired out the seat cushions.8
Few thought that anyone could have survived the crash. Three countries sent out rescue teams, but officials soon called off the search. One of the young men had uncovered a small radio in the wreckage, and he heard an announcer say that the rescue effort had been canceled. The news was met with silence. Some of the men started to weep. A few days later, an avalanche rumbled into the valley, and the heavy, wet snow killed another eight survivors. “It is hard to describe the depths of the despair that fell upon us in the wake of the avalanche,” wrote Nando Parrado in his memoir, Miracle in the Andes. “Now we saw that we would never be safe in this place.”
The men had almost no food. Just a few candies and nuts, and the survivors soon realized that they would have to eat the bodies of the dead in order to survive. It became a ritual of sorts, and each day, a few of the men would pull a frozen corpse out from the snow, cut it open with a small knife, and slice out bits of muscle and fat. Sometimes the meat was cooked.9 Usually, it was eaten raw. Since the men did not know how long they would be in the mountains, they ate the meat in tiny servings, sometimes as small as a matchstick.10
Among the men, the urge to be selfish, to take a little more food or clothing or water for themselves, was strong. Everyone was deeply hungry. Everyone was exquisitely cold. But the survivors developed a sense of togetherness. They encouraged each other relentlessly. It was about what was best for the group, and the men created a strict system around sleeping positions since spots farther from the door were warmer and more comfortable.11 Everyone received the exact same ration of cigarettes.12 The men continued to care for the wounded, massaging the feet of the injured to protect their toes from frostbite.13 “When one suffered, everyone did. If someone did something wrong, everyone reacted,” Fito Strauch later explained.14 “There was no room for anyone to do anything that was against the general interest. It was like a 19-bodied organism.”
The survivors also developed “expeditionaries,” a small group of men who would try to climb out of the valley, and those men received additional clothes, food, and water. The expeditionaries were also excused from chores so that they could save up their strength.15 And early on the morning of December 12, after nearly two months in the mountains, two of the expeditioners set out in the snow and ice. They clambered over boulders, slid down river gorges, until miles later, the men stepped onto the high plains of Chile and spotted a cattle herder. A military helicopter soon rescued the rest of the survivors. Many of the men were near death. Some could barely walk. One man boarded the helicopter holding the downed plane’s Exit sign.16
Movies, books, a documentary, they have all been dedicated to the Andes crash. But still, the question nags: How did the men survive? There are some partial explanations. Religion played a role for some of the men. Almost all of the survivors were athletes of one sort or another. But in the end, the men persevered because they had faith in each other. By coming together as a group, by trusting each other, they built the sort of tight-knit band that could live for seventy-two days in one of the harshest places on earth. Or consider this: Each survivor swore that if he died, the others could eat his body in order to live. “None of us were saints,” Parrado once wrote. “We survived not because we were perfect, but because the accumulated weight of our concern for each other far outweighed our natural self-interest.” And it’s that weight — and the social trust that we need to succeed — that is the central idea of this book.
According to conventional wisdom, humans are plainly self-interested. While we can create laws and religions to induce good behavior, we typically view ourselves as a species of unrepentant narcissists. This notion is widespread. Theologians argue that we are born into sin. Economists suggest that selfishness is good. The only thing that holds us back from anarchy, it would appear, is the threat of society’s sanctions — and the lure of its rewards. In other words, people shouldn’t trust because people are not trustworthy.
But this view of human nature isn’t fully accurate. Consider, again, the men stuck in the Andes. They were stranded in brutal conditions. But still they shared food and clothing and took care of the wounded. So why did the men work together? In recent years, science has offered a convincing answer — and it turns out that we cooperate with others because we’re wired to do so. Humans are the most social of social species, and we’re far more trusting — and trustworthy — than we’ve long believed. A faith in others is an essential part of our biology, and from Neolithic villages to the rise of nation states, no other species has been as successful as Homo sapiens at working with others.17
But despite the mounting evidence, we rarely give much attention to our social ways. Instead, we try to motivate people using sweet carrots or hard-edged sticks. We don’t realize that a sense of connection can matter as much as a bit of cash. We treat fairness as something that matters only to children. We believe, simply put, that others are not worthy of our trust, and today almost 60 percent of Americans believe that “you can’t be too careful dealing in dealing with other people.”18 Less than a quarter say that they have faith in Washington to do the right thing.19 Just about one in ten Americans think that their business leaders are honest.20
This lack of trust has a long history. Blame hour-long commutes and iPads and the Great Recession. Blame the growing pressures of time and money. Blame hyper-individualism, and today about a quarter of college students qualify as narcissists.21 We can even blame the media, and because of headlines that scream the news of one crisis after another people believe that the world is far more cruel-hearted than it really is. So while violent gun crime has been dropping steadily, most Americans believe that it’s on the rise.22
On one side, society has changed, and we will not return to the social cohesion of the 1950s anytime soon. But at the same time, we all need to be part of something bigger than ourselves. We are all motivated by more than our own self-interest, and our faith in others is a type of social cement. It’s the currency of our social capital.23 It’s what keeps families, organizations, even nations together. No economic, political, or social system can function without trust, and there’s an almost parallel relationship between trust and economic growth.
Or think of trust as a type of tax on human interactions. In a lowtrust environment, every exchange, every conversation, carries an additional cost, causing transactions to be less productive. High-trust groups don’t pay this tax, and so they’re far more effective. This makes faith in others crucial to our economy, whether it’s a customer hiring a contractor to build a new bathroom or having confidence that a colleague will do his share of a project. It’s also what makes trust central to our democracy. To go to the polls, voters need to believe that elected officials will deliver on their promises.
In many ways, the issue is that we simply don’t appreciate how dependent on trust we already are. Or just recall the last time that you drove your car. At every traffic light, at every stop sign, you placed your faith in someone you’ve almost certainly never met and probably will never see again. This book, then, is an attempt to make the invisible power of trust a little more visible. But more than that, I want to show you how the science of trust, the power of our social ways, can lead to more effective organizations, a healthier economy, and a stronger nation.
Table of Contents
Author’s Note ix
Part I: Why We Trust
1. The Social Instinct 3
2. The Chemical of Trust: Love, Sex, and Hormones 18
3. Reciprocity, Indirect Reciprocity, and What We
Can Learn from Hector Ramirez 29
4. How We Trust: The Lessons of Clark Rockefeller 51
5. What’s Fair Is Fair: The Art of Equity 66
6. Trusting Too Much: Risk, Reason, and Diversity 77
7. Can We Trust Again?: Learning from Rwanda 90
Part II: How We Can Improve Trust
8. Teams: “Go on Faith and Knowledge” 107
9. Markets: Why Trade Builds Trust 116
10. Government: Trusting the Tax Man 126
11. Democracy: “Encouraging You to Be Nasty” 139
12. Technology: Communication, Community,
and Couchsurfing 152
13. Path Forward: Sometimes We Need to Leap 164
Trust by State 179
Toolkit for Policymakers 181