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Trust Through the Symbols of Daily Life

In daily life evidence and proof are rarely required for trust and belief. That seems odd. The political maxim, attributed to Reagan, “trust but verify,” does not apply to many of life’s more important decisions.

My wife and I were recently out of the area visiting relatives. Late one night, we ended up in the ER. Our relatives and iPhones got us to the “best” place — the one that was closest. Immediately we were whisked through intake, scheduled for procedures, advised by specialists, and eventually operated on in a matter of hours. The medical issue was minor, but as with all things there were risks.

All the while we consented and followed along. Not once did we “interview” our doctors. We didn’t ask them where they went to school or to show us their medical licenses. We saw the white coats; we observed how they spoke to us and how others addressed them; we acknowledged their interpretations of tests; and when it came time for treatment, we consented, despite having to run ordinary but known risks that any surgery carries with it.

Measured Trust

Our trust exhibited the hallmarks of a serious relationship, the sort you would imagine that should require various levels of testing and confidence, given through experience and time. Yet we demanded none of that. Looking back, it seems rather foolish, especially given the risks to our health and the expenses incurred. I spent months vetting and deliberating over the company to re-insulate my crawl space. That was worth less money and far more mundane. And even then I watched them like a hawk to make sure they didn’t short change me. At the hospital, we said “yes” each time they asked us to do anything.

Our need for measured rationality is really overrated. That is, we do not always act with a full understanding of things and the explicit evidence that would support our conclusions. We tend to respond fairly well as humans to perceived authority, and specifically to expertise when it is accompanied by form that corresponds to a function. We naturally extend trust even when we haven’t made and reviewed a punch list for due diligence. We allow our needs to be met by those ready to meet them.

Had we spent hours examining the doctors, looking up their licenses, credentials, and experiences, we might have come to the same conclusion. Or, our doubts might have urged us to a second or third opinion. In our experience, the rational option was best suited to making the healthiest decision.

The trappings and ceremony of authority and professionalism are important. We expect those who render a service or meet a need to do so in a way that quickly engenders trust, and that allows us the confidence of knowing that what they ask or tell us is true, beyond what our doubts might suggest.

Against Self-Prescription

This is starkly contrary to the self-diagnosing and self-prescribing culture we indulge daily, thanks to the outflow of information from the internet. There always seems to be some further collective knowledge that I can review to know the truth of things. But the decision to act on a rational and fully informed basis may not necessarily be an intellectual exercise as much as it is an act of the will equivalent to a simple “let’s roll.” This points to an expectation about life more closely associated with the idea of fiat than a principle of the “autonomous self.”

That gutting of an active and rational autonomy might seem unwise. But it’s how life works. And since we’re happy and healthy again, I don’t seem to think it’s such a bad thing.

 

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