• Simon Boardman

Welsh Rugby and the Neuroscience of Trust...Trick or Trust Part II

Updated: Apr 13


images courtesy of Olga Guryanova & Robina Weermeijer on Unsplash

Wales dominated the sport of rugby in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s. Coincidentally they seemed to dominate the teaching profession in Britain at the same time. This confluence made some part of my adolescence miserable. Our Welsh teachers were proud of being Welsh, proud of their rugby team, and took every opportunity to remind us continually. All us keen young (English) rugby players found this particularly painful, but sports commentators were confounded for different reasons. The question was, "how could such a small country consistently produce such a commanding team?"

When we first looked at "trust," we used the movie "The Prestige." The Chris Nolan movie illustrates our capacity to fool ourselves as well as the ease with which we will forgive others for fooling us. We argued that (joking aside) when we combine these ideas with our growing tolerance of real deception (we've come to expect it these days), the concept of "trust" might be changing…for the worse. This time around, we're looking at the neuroscience of trust – the physical plumbing if you will. To achieve this, we'll be dredging up those painful memories from the era of rugby's dominance by the Welshmen from the land of dragons.

Materialism Vs. Dualism

The primary debate of Cartesian Dualism Vs. Materialism seems to have been settled (maybe). Cartesian Dualism (named after French philosopher Rene Descartes) maintained the existence of a brain AND a mind (or soul) and has seemingly been buried by materialism. Materialism maintains that everything we are is the result of our physical brains – the “material” if you will. "Dualism is the belief that there are two kinds of substances that make up a person: physical matter and, more importantly, a non-physical mind or soul. Materialism disputes that claim and asserts that man and matter are one and the same and that there is no mysterious, unobservable force that guides our actions." Once more science triumphs, and we step closer to AI, the supercomputer brain, robots, sky-net, and the singularity. I can hardly wait.

Let's Get Physical

If we subscribe to the views of materialism, what can we learn from the physical "location" of trust within these great brains of ours? If we can figure out what else is going on in the same neighborhood, perhaps we can become better judges of who is trustworthy and who is not. We have been taught to use people's physical behavior as a sign of trustworthiness. We're on patrol to spot weak handshakes, poor eye contact, nervousness, and stammering as signs of untrustworthiness. Yet, as Malcolm Gladwell shows in "Talking to Strangers," we are poor judges of authenticity. His perspective on the Amanda Knox case is a compelling example of people (the Italian legal community) reaching a conclusion based on this weak thinking and then using equally flawed observations of Knox's behavior to support their preconceived conclusion of Knox's guilt. Knox's behavior after the murder may not have satisfied most people's definition of "conventional." Still, it didn't mean she was guilty. If we can trace other transactions that occur in our brains that are associated with "trust," maybe we can free ourselves of traditional thinking with its poor outcomes.

The Grey Area

Paul Zak's work, as quoted in the HBR Article from July 2019, shares his research on the roles of Theory of Mind and Empathy and their effect on generating and granting trust. Theory of Mind is our unique ability to recognize other people's mental states. According to Zak, "In simple terms, the theory of mind will enable us to think in terms of the other person. In other words, we would feel if I was them, I would do this. It lets us predict other people's behaviors. Theory of Mind is the ability to recognize other people's mental states, and they may be different from our own." Empathy is similar, but writer and social philosopher Roman Krznaric defines empathy as; "the ability to step into the shoes of another person, aiming to understand their feelings and perspectives and to use that understanding to guide our actions." If we have well-developed capabilities in theory of Mind and Empathy, does that make us better at both garnering trust and being able to judge who is trustworthy? If this is true, wouldn't those same people be able to use these "super" powers for evil purposes, those of deception?

Happy Days

Zak introduces another key player, the neurochemical oxytocin. According to John Medina, in his book Brain Rules, "oxytocin plays a huge role in social bonding. This talented molecule stimulates temporary feelings of trust, orgasms, lactation, and even birth…Researchers have discovered that when people sing as a group, as they would in a choir, oxytocin courses through their brains. This uptick in the hormone is a fairly reliable indicator of feelings of trust, love, and acceptance. This might explain why people in a choir often report feeling so close to each other."

Zak maintains that oxytocin also reduces the anxiety we sometimes feel when we are around other people. It motivates us to cooperate with and help others. Oxytocin also regulates the release of dopamine. This means we experience enjoyment from working with, collaborating, and connecting with others. Zak goes on, "which means that working together is something we evolved to enjoy."

If oxytocin promotes trust, cooperation, and even love, can we recreate the circumstances to encourage oxytocin (and therefore trust)? And by the way, just because our bodies (in this case, brains) produce a neurochemical that promotes certain feelings, it doesn't mean those feelings will enable us to identify trustworthiness in others successfully. As with many feelings, they can deceive us.

Land of My Fathers

John Medina's observations about the euphoria created by the release of oxytocin as a result of singing in a choir have stuck with me. It conjures up that maelstrom of neuroscience, emotion, environment, and social influences. An example of this interplay of neurological and social forces returns us to our introduction and those painful memories of the dominance of Welsh rugby. The origin of this influence on trust and idea of community, social trust, and kinship might lie in the valleys, mining villages, churches, choirs, and rugby teams of Wales. If you're familiar with rugby, and of a certain age, you'll recognize this story. If not, stay with me. Rugby experts reflect on Wales' ability to field consistently successful international teams, despite their comparatively small pool of talent (Wales has a population of 3.1m out of a total UK population of 66m). The standard answer is that "rugby is itself a religion in Wales." In other words, not only does everyone play it, everyone lives it. It's stronger than the enthusiasm for soccer in Brazil and cricket in India. Based on Medina's observations, we wonder whether that's an outcome, not a cause. The cause is more about the social bonds and trust established initially through the fellowship created in those tight-knit communities – the Welsh mining villages of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Village People

The villagers packed their small village churches every Sunday morning. There was a strong sense of community and pride as their everyday toil and strong faith united people. The miners of those Welsh villages didn't have much to sing about. Mining was (and still is) a miserable existence. Never more so than in the mining villages scattered across Wales in the 18th, 19th, and 20th Centuries. The village church was the center of physical and spiritual fraternity. Yes, they raised their voices to God in praise, but maybe also to encourage themselves and one another through that fellowship. The singing was a ritual of shared experience, and this celebration helped share the suffering they endured. They were all in it together, and the village church, the choir, the singing, the raising of their voice to God, provided some comfort uniting them in their battle with adversity. As both Medina and Zak have pointed out, sharing that type of experience has a neurochemical effect which promotes positive emotions. The juice of trust seems to flow in these conditions, helping the Welsh miners and their families preserve and (maybe) Welsh rugby teams to compete.

If you've ever spent much time attending church (or rugby) and joining in the singing of hymns and the rituals of religious fellowship, it's hard to deny or resist the emotional buoyancy one feels. Hymns get sung, people greet one another, they shake hands, and the priest confers his final blessing on the congregation. One of the effects is that trust also flows along with a feeling of euphoria.

This flow has gotten interrupted as our definitions of the community have been disrupted. Technology has many advantages and can contribute in many areas (a vast debate for another day), but it's hard to see where the benefits of technology are transformational enough to compensate for the physical disruptions to our ideas of community. There's a physicality, an intimacy to the church, choir, and community example we just discussed, and there's seemingly a physical reaction (the neurochemical oxytocin) that promotes the collaboration enabling society to simply work better. The promotion of trust enables communities and societies to flow more freely, to run with less friction. It's hard to see how substituting Sunday at church (singing, listening, and socializing with the social benefits that go along with it) with a webcast and still preserve these benefits. You might be able to communicate the same message, read the same texts, and make the same similes. Still, the spiritual experience is hopelessly diluted and much less meaningful.

There is No “I” in T-E-A-M, but there is a “T” …for Trust

Rugby is similar to American football. It provides the opportunity for individual contribution and flair but is ultimately a team game—one where teammates must rely on one another to do their jobs. A team with great chemistry, communication, and higher levels of trust with one another, will outperform rivals comprised of more talented individuals. Our point is that there is a "cultural trust" that bonds Welsh teams together, allowing them to perform better as a team. Maybe this bond has its origins a few hundred years ago, in the churches and choirs of those Welsh mining villages. Perhaps this bond has made its way into the cultural fabric of Wales, the Welsh people, and into the national game of rugby.

The Verdict

So what do we conclude from our journey through trust as we meander through the Welsh mining villages of years gone by, en route through the neurology of trust? Maybe we 're back to the good old "heredity Vs. environment" discussion?

  • It seems that we're all the victims of our neurology, or beneficiaries, depending on how you look at it. Those with well-developed capacities in Theory of Mind and Empathy, maybe better able to judge other people's mental states and either grant trust (having judged their trustworthiness) or gain trust?

  • But like many mental capacities, you can improve it. You can also work on it and become more empathetic if you want to. So once more, we find it difficult to divorce the physical and social forces of trust. But at least we are aware of them, and maybe what creates someone's disposition to either be more trustworthy or be more trusting.

  • We've also touched upon the situations that promote the neurochemical responses that encourage the "chemistry of trust." In this case, we used the example of the tight-knit communities of Welsh mining villages and the choirs within. These social activities gave rise to a physical reaction, with the creation of strong social bonds. These bonds may have endured and seeped into the fabric of the Welsh culture, with at least one outcome being their ability field high-performing rugby teams.

At least now I can look back on those years of Welsh dominance with a newfound admiration. Around Wales’s National Day, St David's Day, March 1st, the memories of our Welsh teachers proudly wearing their national flower (the daffodil) come flooding back. So maybe I have discovered a fresh affection for our old Welsh rivals, and for their bonds of trust forged in those villages and churches of old. But that emotional adolescent scarring runs deep. It’s an echo of the past reverberating through those classrooms and corridors, in those assembly halls and sports gyms and across those rugby fields of my youth…and as the Welsh would say “Mae hen wlad fy nhadau yn annwyl i mi,”


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