Cheat-Seeking Missles

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Trust And Reciprocity

In the face of Bush Derangement Syndrome's crippling impact on the clear-thinking of the Left, and a similar but unnamed syndrome that puts the Right into a Pavlovian frothing whenever the words Gore, Kerry or Moore are heard, we need to ask ourselves if political trust has gone by the wayside, and is no more relevant today than a hand-cranked telephone.

Trust is certainly a cornerstone of a successful democracy, even if it's a "trust but verify" sort of trust. How could a single bill move forward without trust? How could a single regulation be vetted without trust? How could you ever vote for any candidate without trust?

In Iraq, trust is in short supply, which explains much of what's going wrong over there. Looking at that model, we need to think critically about our own levels of trust, and consider what can be done to turn this situation around.

John Beardsley, the former president of the Public Relations Society of America recently wrote on the subject in the Society's journal, The Strategist (not available online):
In April, a report by researchers at Baylor and Cal Tech, published in the journal Science, described the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging -- technology that makes it possible to watch the brain at work -- during a standard economic exchange game to evaluate what the brain is doing and when trust is being formed.

They found that the "intention to trust" is produced in the interior of the brain -- specifically in the caudate nucleus (behind the eyeballs) and in the anterior and middle portions of the cingulate cortex overlaying the midbrain, areas that are connected to the brain's reward pathways. Of course, the conscious decision to trust someone is made in the frontal lobe, where all decisions are made. What's new is the discovery that trusting behavior is prompted by things going on behind the frontal lobe.

This research is one example of the emerging field of neuroeconomics. It will certainly influence future developments in behavioral economics. It could also be important to communicators, too, not because they are all that eager to learn neurophysiology, but because the report's main conclusion contains a powerful directive: "Reciprocity predicts trust." ... Reciprocity is so important, in fact, that legal scholar Cass Sunstein has written, "Rather than being homo economicus, people may be homo reciprocans." (emphasis added)
Proof of this principal can be found by looking no further than al Qaeda. They trust the United States; not in a positive way, but they now trust that we will pursue them doggedly, that we are not some paper tiger that blusters but cowers. It was not always this way. Under Clinton, they didn't trust us to respond to their brutality in any meaningful way.

Now they do, and the difference is reciprocity. They attacked, we attacked back. Ironically, trust was built in the process -- negative trust, but it works because there are negatives on both sides of the equation. In the situation of positive political trust, which we're lacking, there need to be positives on both sides of the equation: A promise that we'll get some benefit, and that the benefit actually will be delivered.

I don't trust Democrats because, at least in part, there's no reciprocity there. They either promise what I don't trust to work, or they promise what I don't trust them to deliver. They promised to make society great by eliminating poverty, but I only saw society get worse. They promised to make the world better by stopping the war in Vietnam, but I only saw the world get worse. They promised they could fight terror without fighting a war, but the terror only got worse.

That means, then, for Bush Derangement Syndrome to wane and trust in GOP policies to grow, we need some reciprocity here at home. We can't just succeed in planting democracy in the Muslim world; we have to see benefits at home. We can't just succeed in conquering the insurgency in Iraq; we have to show people that the GOP has given them a benefit by pursuing the war successfully. We can't just have a booming economy because of tax cuts; we have to build a reciprocal relationship around the jobs and paychecks.

There are positives to report on all three of the examples above, but the Bush Administration has failed as communicators. We are not pursuing the media war, the War of the Words. Bush's speechwriters are no Peggy Noonans; Bush is no Reagan. And the GOP is hobbled as a result.

Fortunately, it's worse on the Left. Just try to listen to Kerry or Dean. Bush Derangement Syndrome has made them utterly untrustworthy.

I remember as a Scout grabbing my little finger with my thumb, thrusting my arm up, and pledging myself to the sorts of things that trust is built on: honor, God, country, duty, obedience, helpfulness, morality. And I did trust, because in return for this promise, I saw myself grow as a man, and I saw our gang of rough and tumble boys come together and do great things as our Scoutmaster quietly led us forward.

The GOP has been much more successful than the Dems were under Clinton and we therefore have much of what we need in place to re-establish trust. Bush doesn't communicate it and Cheney and Rove don't naturally engender it. They're all great at what they do, but trust-building across domestic fences is not their strength.

Show me that ability in a 2008 GOP candidate, and I'm interested, very interested.

Illustrations: Journal of Longevity, Boy Scout Handbook
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