Neuroscience, ACEs, and Trust

Neuroscience, ACEs, and Trust

Why is it that people trust each other?

On the surface, that question might sound elementary. We trust other people because we… trust them. We know them. We’ve built a relationship with them. They… look trustworthy! Right? Maybe.

When you hail a cab or Uber in a foreign country, do you trust the driver to take you to your destination? When you place a first-time order from a third party residing across the country (or world), do you trust them to send you the item you purchased? When you give your money to a bank teller you’ve never seen before, do you trust him or her to put it in your account? When you start a new job, do you trust your supervisor or the leaders of the company?

When we start dissecting trust and how it informs our relationships, it becomes obvious that we place a lot of trust in people we barely know or don’t know at all. Conversely (and hopefully), people place their trust in us even when we are unknown to them.

From a macro-level perspective, neuroscience research has demonstrated that societies, where trust is high, are more open, developed, and happier. At the same time, a society where trust has been broken between organizations or between people, often experience social unrest. In fact, if trust dips low enough, then the number of deceivers and cheaters rises which erodes our societal values and contentment.[i]

How then can we define trust? Merriam-Webster says trust is the “assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something; one in which confidence is placed.”[ii]

One helpful definition, from a neuroscience perspective, that should particularly resonate with leaders is that trust is “a psychological state comprising the intention to accept vulnerability based upon positive expectations of the intentions or behavior of another.”[iii]

In other words, leaders who express vulnerability and are open instead of closed and standoffish are more likely to build trust and been seen as trustworthy.

Reliance, character, confidence, vulnerability, expectations, and behavior. What could possibly go wrong?

Trust is obviously fundamental for human relationships across familial, social, and economic domains. Of importance to leaders is that a person’s ability to trust in any of these domains can be traced to a person’s or employee’s early life events. What? Early childhood? Yes.

Researchers talk about building trust as part of a person’s “life-history strategy.” A person’s strategy moves back and forth along a “slow-to-fast continuum” and is formed in accordance with how people resolve events in their lives. For example, a fast strategy is often found when a person is seeking immediate gratification or a short-term opportunity. A slow strategy is associated with a “preference towards long-term planning and decisions that increase future payoffs.”[iv]

The connection with early childhood centers around the type of environment in which a child was reared. A childhood characterized by harshness or unpredictability can result in a child choosing a fast life-history strategy. In other words, they are seeking immediate solutions to problems or immediate protection from adversity. They are more concerned about today than they are about tomorrow.

Children who employ fast life-history strategies often exhibit a lack of self-control due to a scarcity of resources and a lack of a safe environment.[v]

With these types of challenges, are we surprised when adolescents and young adults prefer to engage in questionable or destructive behaviors that reap quick benefits instead of planning for their future?

Trust requires time to build the assured reliance and confidence in people. Trust requires a slow life-history strategy. Trust involves “self-control, delayed gratification and future investment.”[vi]

Perhaps, this idea is understood in the explanation that trust takes a long time to build and a short time to break.

Actions have consequences which we usually equate with punishment. We accept this and usually support this idea. However, we should all take a pause when we see a child or adolescent engaging in a behavior that results in long-term, if not life-long, consequences.

However, when actions are seen through the lens of slow or fast life-history strategies, we can start to develop an appreciation for why people, especially individuals who have experienced a harsh childhood, engage in behaviors that help them make it through the day or quickly relieve emotional pain.

What we either forget or haven’t yet made the connection to is that children and adolescents who experienced adverse childhood experiences and whose brains developed around these experiences don’t forget or change their behavior or expectations simply because they turned 18. How then can we expect people who have never developed a slow life-history approach that allows for the development of deep trust to show up in the workplace and easily or quickly learn to trust their co-workers, supervisors, or customers? Not. Going. To. Happen.

Leaders want, no – need, people who are highly engaged at work. Organizations need people who have strong (i.e., trustful) relationships, feel like they contribute to the mission, and enjoy learning new things. When organizations have highly engaged employees, organizations benefit through higher productivity, higher quality products, and increased profits.[vii]

If leaders want to help ensure their employees are highly engaged, then leaders must understand that people who utilized a fast life-history strategy may struggle to fit in because they find it hard to trust others or may feel unsafe – as if they are just one mistake away from being fired.

Leaders can foster trust and help employees become engaged by creating a safe, stable, and encouraging environment. Leaders who create a culture of trust make a meaningful difference for everyone.

Is this idea that hard to understand or are we more concerned about employing our own fast life-history strategy (i.e., immediate profits, quick promotions, and personal recognition) instead of a slow strategy (i.e., long-term growth, professional development for everyone, and team/company recognition)?

Who knew that neuroscience, adverse childhood experiences, and trust were intertwined? Well, we all do now!


[i]Frank Krueger and Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg, “Toward a Model of Interpersonal Trust Drawn from Neuroscience, Psychology, and Economics,” Trends in Neurosciences, February 2019, Vol. 42, No. 2, 92-101.[ii][iii]Frank Krueger and Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg.[iv]Angelos Stamos , Efthymios Altsitsiadis , and Siegfried Dewitte, “Investigating the effect of childhood socioeconomic background on interpersonal trust: Lower childhood socioeconomic status predicts lower levels of trust,” Personality and Individual Differences 145 (2019), 19–25.[v]Ibid.[vi]Ibid.[vii] Paul j. Zak, “The Neuroscience of Trust,” January–February 2017 Harvard Business Review, 84-90.