Trust is a powerful thing. Have it and life is easy: you get what you want, things fall into place, and problems usually are small. Lack it, and well, life becomes hard. Think of it this way: what makes a criminal so bad? Mistrust. Think of the historical boogeymen of American life, and you find an intersection of the dank, dirty, and distrustful.
Cognitive Bias is a powerful thing. Like trust, it can be a powerful panacea deftly dispensing incompatibilities, uncertainties, and messy murky mitigations. But it can also cause quite the hangover: a sort of subjective social reality where your crap doesn’t stink and everything fits neatly into your prepacked ideological narrative.
So what is at the intersection of Trust and Cognitive Bias? Innumeracy, or the inability to reason intuitively with greater orders of magnitude. Basically, the more processing you do the more likely you are to have a major or systemic error in reasoning—your brain is NOT a super computer. In truth humans aren’t rational. Yes, that includes you. Humans aren’t objective. Still includes you! Instead what we think of rationality is cognitive bias: what makes sense to us is a product of our personal experiences, mental shortcuts created over time, and our tendency to trust the conclusions we draw. Now, this is not to say truth is relative or that we are all irrational. Rather, this is to suggest no one is coming to the table without bias and no one is coming to the table with an objective understanding. We are all coming to the table with our baggage.
For most of human history we have mitigated these pitfalls with powerful institutions: curators and gatekeepers. Curators have long been the people responsible for our culture: civic leaders, neighborhood captains, and the people guiding us morally and ethically. These curators have been working with and within powerful institutions like the media, the academy, and the church to ground the conversation. This worked for thousands of years, even though the conversation kept moving to adjust to new ideals (think of the saying: the arch of history is long (and slow) but bends towards justice).
And then came the Internet.
In the last three decades, humans have become overwhelmed with information. We have become inundated with calories, energy, and literally every other human need. For the people driving the global economy (Yes, I’m most likely referring to you) life has never been better: cures for most things, and near instant gratification for everything else. We can go online and have everything delivered to our door or screen: food, fun, information, and even companionship. What is the unintended consequence? We can now order a fully customizable life but we have not created something to fill in the roles of curators and gatekeepers. In fact, we find them anathema in the name of transparency, freedom, and agency.
Which isn’t all bad: we have had sexual and gender revolutions and are in the midst of a powerful recalibration of the white hetero-cisgendered patriarchy.
But we no longer trust. Our cognitive bias reigns supreme. We consider our experts to now be shills for their ideologies when presented with information we don’t like. Our curators reduced to nothing more than capitalist succubi force-feeding us manufactured realities rather than aspirational injections. Our gatekeepers are viewed as old desiccating barriers. Now anyone with a smartphone is an expert, anyone who is attractive and savvy with social media a curator, and the institutions our gatekeepers oversee are under serious strain: can you name a news personality everyone trusts? A politician with the humility required to hold the moral high ground?
All of this speaks to a famous effect in Psychology: Dunning-Kruger. As a form of cognitive bias it explains very much the world we live today: people of low ability have “illusory superiority” and incorrectly over-assess their abilities. I think of it this way: you don’t know enough to know that you don’t know enough. Or: youth is wasted on the young.
So now we trust ourselves. We have all of the data in our pockets, and whatever makes sense to us is just as good as truth because we can trust it and because it fits into how we already see the world. Who needs truth when you can trust yourself? And if you can trust yourself, then those who believe differently must be untrustworthy…or are unnecessary.
We are our own curators and gatekeepers. Our own sense makers.
And, golly, are we senseless.
So what can save us: empathy and gratitude. We must all remember that we are all human. We forget that all too often and all too quickly.