This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

June 3, 2010 - whom should you trust?

Years ago, a friend of mine adopted a dog from the pound. The dog, a beautiful German shepherd/Doberman mix, had clearly been mistreated. The first time I met him, I greeted him with a happy "hello!" and put out my hand to pet him. He was so frightened he wet the carpet. Other dogs so treated turn vicious.

For humans, trust probably begins as our earliest childhood experience. As infants, we laugh or cry; somebody comes to see that we're OK.

If nobody comes, or they behave different each time, our openness to the world closes. We get suspicious and paranoid. We have trouble trusting.

Our early treatment in the world, while not absolutely definitive, touches our feelings about all kinds of things.

I'm reading a book called "How we decide," by Jonah Lehrer, who wrote something that really struck me. Our emotions, he said, are not irrational. Rather, they are deeply empirical.

He described one experiment about people who had to pull cards from one of four decks. One of the decks was "poison," costing big point losses in the experimental game. But it took maybe 20-30 tries before there was enough evidence to figure that out.

Nonetheless, in almost every case, people had a bad feeling about that deck long before the conscious mind knew what was up. The bad feeling manifest itself by a slight clamminess of the hands when they reached for the deck, a slight speeding up of the pulse.

The point is: we're wired to try to make sense of the world, to predict what's going to happen. To put it another way, both emotionally and mentally, we constantly strive to adjust ourselves to reality.

Lehrer also discusses many ways in which our neurochemistry can lead us astray. Our feelings aren't always reliable; they can be fooled.

We tell ourselves stories about how things are, and those stories can get so deeply engrained in us that they're hard to change, even when they're wrong.

A combination of these factors leads, I think, to the current lack of trust in some public institutions.

Remember last year when the state passed a "transparency" bill? It mandated that public school districts put their "checkbooks" up on a website. The theory: this total exposure of finances would result in greater public trust.

I didn't believe it. I believe, in fact, that it's likely to result in the opposite.

For instance, the Denver Post ran a front page article about how metro area public school districts had spent shocking amounts of money (thousands of dollars out of billions of dollars) on coffee. A person finding this expense on the website might say, "a shocking waste of tax payer dollars!"

But talk to somebody who bought the coffee, and they'll tell you the rest of the story behind the expense: he picked up coffee on the way into an emergency meeting of parents, a crisis team coming together in the wake of a student suicide. Later, the parents reimbursed him. Those details don't show up in the checkbook, at least not right next to each other.

"Transparency" in this case, in order to lead to trust, would require not just comprehensive review of expenses, but enough context to make sense of them.

And who is willing to spend that much time really digging into how things connect, when it's so much easier just to look for dirt -- or the appearance of it? Especially when you're just sure it's got to be there.

Logically, the best indicator of institutional trustworthiness should be experience over time. Consistent performance, walking the talk, increases trust.

But if the owner pets and praises the dog one time, and beats him the next, regardless of the dog's behavior, trust isn't easy to come by.

And that's true whether the dog is the citizen or the institution.

LaRue's Views are his own.

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