Why do we distrust?

The fine Duluth News Tribune columnist Sam Cook asks an important question worthy of dominating the public discourse: Why do we distrust people? Why do we expect the worst?

He writes in today’s column that he passed a man on a street in Duluth who was muttering to himself, enough so that it gave him pause. He passed him, somewhat fearful in the process, but the man just continued on, living his life.

“I’m still ashamed of my reaction to him,” Cook writes.

Why is it so easy to distrust, to expect the worst, to let our wariness or our perceived differences escalate so quickly? Why is the “other” so often assumed to be evil or potentially harmful?

I was talking about that with a wise person I know the other night. He suggested that maybe it goes as deep as our very survival as early humans. Maybe, he said, as we evolved, it was in our best interest to assume that an animal might want to eat you, that an unknown plant was poisonous or that another clan might want to kill you if you ventured into their territory.

Maybe that’s just how basic it is: We’re hard-wired to be on edge, to constantly imagine the worst-case scenario.

That dog might bite. That man might hurt me. With a little extrapolation, those basic survival instincts among a few extremists can escalate to horrific violence on a grand scale.

The world seems to have gone off its collective rocker these days. He suggests it starts — as the old song says — when we’re always afraid.

Why are we always afraid?

  • Brian Simon

    Once bit, twice shy.

  • MrE85

    Cook is right about our natural animal instincts, but we should be smart enough to get past them. As crazy as the world is getting, I’m not going to buy a gun, or run away and hide. As you recently reminded me, this is the only life we get. Let’s live it well, and unafraid.

    PS: I learned today that a great fellow I’ve worked with for a couple years has stage 4 cancer. He’s got a wife, a little boy and another child on the way. You never know how long you have — live fearlessly.

    • Thomas Mercier

      Our goal should certainly be to outsmart our impulses and occasionally I’m frustrated by my 3yr old’s lack of control when tired or hungry. I usually realize too late that when I’m really frustrated by his mood I’m usually tired or hungry too. I’m human enough to know better, but too much animal to always do better. Not to say we shouldn’t try.

  • Jerry

    There’s good money in fear

  • Veronica

    The last 14 years have been nothing but a long refrain of fear. It’s what sells the guns, what gets us to take off our shoes and walk without them in filthy airports, how people manage to sell 5 gallon buckets of dried food to millions of people….

    We’re told to be afraid of the “other”….always. And unlike the Red Scare or previous times (I’m just old enough to remember paying attention to fallout shelters), we’re absolutely brined in fear by the internet in all forms.

  • Jim G

    My wife, our two dogs, and I moved from the Twin Cities to the Portland, Oregon area this week. Being in a completely new city I’ve realized one of the advantages of moving to another state is that I am aware that every road I drive on, every person I meet, and every situation I encounter will be novel. The probability of successful outcomes in my daily experience will increase when I face the expected uncertainty not hesitantly and on guard… but boldly, ready to adapt to the new and accept others as they come to me. People have told my wife and me to enjoy our adventure of living in this new place, perhaps we just need to enjoy the adventure of living.

  • Sue

    We are told on a daily basis to be afraid. That is all we hear from the news, our family our friends.
    Life is not an adventure anymore but a task of enduring and looking around every corner to what “could” happen if you make a wrong choice.

  • Glsai

    It does get easier to distrust, generally when it happens it’s because of someone or something in our past to abuse that trust. I’ve lived my life being trustful and helpful. I’ve also had that trust shattered and learned important lessons in my life. I know who I am, I know what I stand for, I know what my morals and boundaries are. I also know not to expect others to have those same values, morals, and boundaries.
    I have changed from a default trust when I meet new people to a default distrust. Now that doesn’t mean I don’t trust anyone, but I’m much more skeptical of what people say, I don’t make assumptions that everyone thinks like I do. It takes a bit of a willingness to make yourself vulnerable to open yourself up to trust and it doesn’t take many people abusing that trust to make you hesitant to open yourself up to that possible pain again.

  • Jay T. Berken

    I have been noticing lately, maybe because of the times or maybe because of age, that almost no matter how much trust you build, one can lose it pretty quickly.

  • Rob

    We are definitely our own worst enemy when we hyperventilate about events that, no matter how tragic, are unlikely to happen to us. Despite the daily reports of violence and depravity that make it seem like danger is lurking everywhere, it isn’t. Do we need decent gun control? Yes, but we ain’t gonna get it. That said, I spend no time at all worrying about whether I or my loved ones might be shot to death by a whack job. Yes, it COULD happen, but statistics tell us that any given person living in the U.S. is more likely to be attacked by a goat than by someone with an AR-15. YIKES! Now I have goat attack anxiety.

  • Khatti

    Well paranoia and xenophobia do have some survival value. In prehistoric times petting the cute, sabre-toothed tiger, or eating the really pretty berry from the nightshade plant, could have disastrous consequences. Nature taught us to be wary in circumstances where we didn’t know all the facts. Distrust could be one of the reasons we are all here today to bemoan the problem of distrust.

    What needs to be said now, of course, is that this is not the savanna of Africa in 50,000 BC. But those instincts have not aged out of us–and who is to say we won’t need them again. But I would think that they can be managed.