Everywhere you turn, it seems, there’s someone out to screw you over: scammers trying to get your password or your credit card information, telemarketers offering “free” cruises, long-lost acquaintances pretending to care about your life to get you to buy into their multilevel marketing scheme. If you think about the sheer number of times someone tries to pull something over on you in a given week, it’s enough to make you skeptical of anyone and anything.
In a lot of ways, then, skepticism is healthy. It can keep money in your pocket, keep you out of dicey situations, and help you avoid being taken advantage of. But there’s a limit: Hone your sense of skepticism too sharply and it could start to get in the way of your relationships, your personal development, and risks that might be genuinely beneficial for you.
“It is a delicate balancing act,” says Rachel Botsman, a lecturer at Oxford’s Said Business School and the author of Who Can You Trust?, a book about the relationship between trust and technology. “Fear and disenchantment are powerful viruses that spread fast, and we can become vulnerable to being convinced that something that is positive is dangerous.” As an example, Botsman points to the anti-vaxxer movement: Deep-rooted skepticism makes some people so distrustful of the plethora of medical evidence proving the safety of vaccines that they’re willing to expose their children to a host of diseases.
Living as we do in the age of internet scams and privacy invasions, it’s easy for skepticism to become a default response. But actually, Botsman says, it’s more natural to trust.
“Trust is innate,” she says. “For the first few years of our lives, we’re constantly taking trust leaps — from letting go of someone’s hand to taking our first steps to our first day of school to riding a bike.”
Skepticism, on the other hand, is a learned behavior. “Our skepticism and suspicion often begin when something goes wrong or when we have been let down,” Botsman adds. “It can be something that happens directly to us or to someone close to us.”
The good news is that if we can learn it, we can also unlearn it — a valuable skill in moments where skepticism is hurting more than it’s helping.
Neuroscientist Paul Zak, founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University, has spent years studying what happens in our brains when we decide to trust.
“Trust happens rapidly,” says Zak, author of Trust Factor and The Moral Molecule: How Trust Works. “Sense of safety, attachment, and trust work on the same pathways. It happens really fast and requires a positive social interaction. Within a couple of seconds, our brains start modulating this openness to social interaction through oxytocin,” a neurotransmitter that, among other things, is linked to social bonding.
In the real world, you’re obviously not going to squirt oxytocin up your nose when you feel yourself being overly cynical.
According to Zak’s research, higher brain levels of oxytocin also correlate with higher levels of trust. In one experiment, for example, he and his team had participants choose an amount of money to transfer via computer to a stranger. They were informed that the money would then triple in amount, and the receiver could choose whether or not to share the total. The researchers tested oxytocin levels in the participants’ blood before and after they sent the money and found that the more money the participants chose to send, the higher the oxytocin levels rose. And by administering synthetic oxytocin via nasal spray, the researchers determined that those who had more of it prior to making the transfer chose to send more than twice as much money.
In the real world, you’re obviously not going to squirt oxytocin up your nose when you feel yourself being overly cynical. But Zak’s research does offer a clue into how you might work on making yourself more open-minded: Oxytocin is the hormone most closely associated with happiness, suggesting that happiness and trust go hand in hand.
Practically speaking, this translates to a simple rule of thumb: If you want to be more open to an idea, person, or experience, hold off on making a decision about it until you’re in a happy mood — or artificially push yourself into one. If you’re headed to a party, for example, and want to stop yourself from falling into your typical judgmental ways with every new person you meet, try watching heartwarming videos on YouTube before heading out. (Yes, it really can be that simple: Zak’s research found that watching an emotional clip on YouTube raised oxytocin levels 47 percent over the average baseline.) If you’re mulling a work opportunity but having trouble silencing the chorus in your head that’s shouting about all the ways it might end up being a waste of time, remind yourself of all the things you like about your job.
To keep an open mind about a new acquaintance (or an old one), there are a few things you can do in the moment of interaction: Eye contact raises oxytocin levels, which is why meeting someone’s gaze is such an important part of networking and being an effective listener. Touch — that is consensual and respectful — does the same thing, so when you meet new people, put an effort into shaking hands; the initial physical contact sets the tone for a positive interaction that’ll inspire more trust.
Botsman calls trust the “social glue of our relationships,” noting that while it’s important to be careful with where you place yours, it can be too easy to equate that caution with blind skepticism.
“Trust is one of the most precious and fragile currencies we have in our lives,” she says. “It enables us to take risks and try new things, and it acts as a bridge between the known and the unknown. Being wise about trust doesn’t mean being [overly] skeptical. It means giving trust the time, investment, and care it deserves.”
Or, as Zak puts it: “You have to know how to turn it off. Some things you should be skeptical about, and some things you should just let go.”