Who Do You Trust? Making Decisions in the Face of Adversity

AVFCA Who Do You Trust?

As soon as you trust yourself, you will know how to live.”

~Johann Wolfgang von Goethe


By Erin McClintock


You may have heard the expression, “trust must be earned.” But what does earning trust look like? Why do some people unquestionably trust medical experts, legal authorities, and government, while others do not? 


Is there a difference in who you trust when you’re in crisis? How do you trust when faced with coercion and societal pressure? These are timely and complex questions, so let’s dig in. 


How Trust Develops

Not surprisingly, the process of learning to trust begins when you are born. Many psychologists have studied trust formation; one of the most notable was developmental psychologist, Erik Erikson. He studied infants and found that learning to trust was the first stage of a child’s psychosocial development. 


When infants are provided with consistency in the form of food, affection, and comfort, they form the belief that they can depend on others. Conversely, if caregivers neglect an infant’s emotional needs, the child will believe others are undependable and cannot be trusted, leading to negative feelings as they grow up, such as suspicion, frustration, and lack of confidence. 


Charles Feltman, author, entrepreneur, and business coach, defined trust as “choosing to risk making something you value vulnerable to another person’s actions.” Distrust, he said, is the opposite:


“It is a choice not to make yourself vulnerable to another person’s actions. It is a general assessment that; what is important to me is not safe with this person in this situation (or any situation).” 


In his book, The Thin Book of Trust: An Essential Primer for Building Trust at Work, Feltman noted four distinctions of trust: sincerity, reliability, competence, and care. Together, these elements form your opinion about a person’s trustworthiness. 


This framework of trust can be applied to many situations, including those on an individual level (families, friendships, and work relationships) and those on a macro/social level (governmental institutions, healthcare, pharmaceutical industry, and political leaders).


Social Learning Theory

Along with early childhood experiences, factors like trauma, negative relationships, and personality influence how you trust. For example, if you have a strong belief that you can control events in your life (called “internal locus of control”), you’ll be less likely to follow advice from outside influences.


Social Learning Theory posits that you are always evaluating your trust with others based on personal interactions, events, and experiences.


Trust exists on different levels depending on the type of relationship:


  • Deterrence-based trust: The most fragile type of trust “based on the fear of reprisal if trust is violated.” For example, holding up your end of a legal contract. 
  • Knowledge-based trust: The most common type of trust “based on the behavioral predictability that comes from a history of interaction.” You may trust someone to do certain things, such as a friend who will always be available to speak with you when in crisis, but can’t be trusted to show up on time. 
  • Identification-based trust: The highest level of trust “based on a mutual understanding of each other’s intentions and appreciation of the other’s wants and desires.” This level involves an emotional connection often seen between loved ones and people you have known for a long time.


The Authority Principle

Examining trust on the social level calls for exploration of the authority principle. The authority principle investigates:


“A person’s tendency to comply with people in positions of authority, such as government leaders, law-enforcement representatives, doctors, lawyers, professors, and other perceived experts in different fields.”


Assessing those in positions of authority to have better judgment than you do, even when it comes to matters beyond their scope and expertise, follows this pattern. 


Most people are raised to trust authority figures. If you think back to your childhood, this may have been an unspoken part of your upbringing. Were you conditioned to trust your caregivers’ judgements and assessments, along with those tasked to care for you, like teachers, relatives, and doctors?


AVFCA People as Puppets

The Milgram Experiment

The Milgram Experiment conducted in 1963, famously illustrated what happens when people are given instructions by an authority. Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale University, wanted to know whether people in general were obedient to authority after the crimes committed in Nazi Germany. 


He wanted to examine how far people would go when under instruction from an authority figure, even when it involved harming another person. The participants were unknowingly placed in a fixed situation where they were instructed by the experimenter to administer electric shocks every time the student answered a question incorrectly (the experimenter and student were confederates of Milgram’s). 


65% of the research participants obeyed the experimenter’s instructions all the way up to the highest voltage of 450 volts, even when they could hear the learner screaming in pain. Although the experiment is considered unethical by today’s standards, it illuminated some important key findings:


  • People are likely to follow orders given by an authority figure, even if it involves hurting another human being
  • Obedience to authority is socially conditioned at a young age based on how you are raised
  • People are far more likely to obey orders from other people if they believe their authority is moral and/or legal. 


Researchers found that when instructions were given by people that didn’t appear to have the same level of authority as the experimenter, obedience levels dropped drastically.  



An individual’s behavior is influenced not only by people in authority, but also by behavior of the group. Group influence was famously exhibited by the Asch conformity experiments of the 1950s. Researchers found “people were willing to ignore reality and give an incorrect answer in order to conform to the rest of the group.” 


Close to 75% of participants gave answers that matched the majority opinion, even when they didn’t actually agree with the group consensus. 


There were other factors that influenced conformity, including the perceived social status of other members in the group, and the size of the group (the larger the group, the higher the level of conformity). 


Since this experiment, psychology researchers have sought to further explain social pressure and conformity. The research reveals that most people make decisions that go against their better judgements when influenced by their peers, a concept referred to as “herd mentality”. 


Trust in Your Government

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found “a decline in trust can lead to lower rates of compliance with rules and regulations.” They note that it is “not the actual performance of government, but its perceived performance that matters for trust in government.”


Trust in government requires two components: social trust (people’s confidence in their communities) and political trust (trust in government and its institutions). Reports suggest that trust in the American government has been on the decline since the 1960s. 


Only 19% of Americans trust their government to do what is right most of the time. Yet, COVID-19 vaccination compliance is at 69.1% in the US. Why do people comply when most don’t trust their government to do the right thing?


The fear-anger rollercoaster: One study found that fear during times of crisis actually increases trust in the government. Fear causes people to feel less confident in themselves and perceive authority figures as more trustworthy. However, fear is not the only emotion that is present in times of uncertainty. 


Anger is another common response to a crisis and has the opposite effect of fear, resulting in people placing less trust in the government. It is likely that both anger and fear played antagonistic roles during the pandemic.


Manipulation, Mass Formation, and Propaganda

During the height of the COVID-19 hysteria, we witnessed a level of global manipulation unlike anything in history. Coercion tactics were used to convince people to lockdown, wear masks, and eventually take multiple rounds of a vaccine they otherwise wouldn’t have consented to under normal circumstances. 


According to Dr. Mattias Desmet, Professor in Clinical Psychology at the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences at Ghent University, Belgium, in order to deal with the anxiety presented, people are willing to develop a “collective single-mindedness” and follow advice from authority to deal with the perceived threat.


Dr. McDonald, an American psychologist, calls the response to COVID-19 mass delusional psychosis, where an entire group loses their ability to think rationally and begins acting as a herd. He says what has happened is akin to someone being under hypnosis—they cannot listen to logic or reason. 


This mass psychosis caused people to turn against those who did not agree, aligning themselves with propaganda. One narrative was allowed: masks, lockdowns and vaccines were the only way out and anyone who didn’t comply was considered a threat. 


The fear-mongering coming from authority, namely media, scientists and public health institutions, led to the phenomenon of mass formation. The psychological underpinnings of “mass hysteria” is worth exploring in greater detail from the AVFCA library of articles.


The effect of propaganda can be traced back to the 20th century. Edward Bernays applied the principles of public relations to marketing and learned how to influence people’s decisions. He did this through controlling the unconscious part of the mind, building on many of Sigmund Freud’s findings. 


He used marketing tactics we are familiar with today to sell products, appealing to people’s desires and fears. His work on shaping public opinion was later used by the Nazis to create a Fuhrer cult around Hitler. 


What was revealed was that this type of manipulation was not only used to convince people to buy something, but also to shift their beliefs without them knowing, whether for better or for worse. 


When individuals unite over a common belief during times of uncertainty, whether the message is true or not, Dr. Desmet says a kind of mental intoxication happens. Egged on by divisive propaganda, those who did not conform were ostracized, shamed, and ridiculed, which Desmet says deepened the social bond and intoxication. 



Gaslighting is “the manipulation of another person into doubting their perceptions, experiences, or understanding of events.”  From the Newport Institute:


Typically, “gaslighters are seeking to gain power and control over the other person, by distorting reality and forcing them to question their own judgment and intuition.” 


When gas-lighting is successful, you accept the new reality imposed upon you. Gaslighting occurs in personal and professional relationships, but in the case of the pandemic, it took place on a global scale. Today, “fact-checkers,” scientists, health officers, and policy makers have become societal gaslighters. 


Because they are considered authorities, you are far more likely to listen to them. Throw in an intense amount of coercion and social pressure, and you have all the ingredients for mass-compliance and obedience—no mask, no service. No vaccine, no entry. 


Gaslighters understand that something very dear has to be at stake in order for manipulation to work. In the case of the COVID-19 mandates, earning the basic tenets of trust wasn’t necessary because there was already enough fuel in the fire. 


People didn’t want to be outcast or ostracized; they didn’t want to lose friendships or family members; their jobs and the ability to participate in society were being threatened. 


Individuals were pitted against each other and many decided to follow the herd because fitting in with the group was so deeply ingrained, as Asch demonstrated. However, choices made under coercion and gaslighting are not “choices,” they are more akin to enslavement to fear. 


AVFCA We the People

Do They Pass the Test?

If you make choices you wouldn’t otherwise make when experiencing fear, manipulation and societal pressure, how do you decide you can trust someone when not under these influences? Let’s reflect back on the last two years and use Charles Feltman’s four essential components of trust to analyze our government’s trustworthiness.


  • Sincerity: Were our governmental institutions and the people representing them honest, evidence-based, and consistent in their messaging? 


Unfortunately, inconsistent messaging from government regulatory bodies continues to grow. A recent example: A Pfizer executive admitted to the European parliament they did not know whether the vaccine would prevent transmission of the virus or not, despite it previously being promoted as doing exactly that. 


Albert Bourla, CEO of Pfizer, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Rochelle P. Walensky, Director of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and MSN news anchors were among many who justified vaccine mandates and lockdowns based on the very lie that vaccination would stop transmission.


Lab leak theory was touted as conspiracy by major media outlets from the beginning of the pandemic, only to be retracted months later when investigations revealed the virus was likely to have originated in a Wuhan lab. These are just a few examples of a long list that would suggest government officials have not been honest or consistent.


  • Reliable: Will government authorities keep their commitments and promises? 


At the beginning of the pandemic, you heard the infamous line “two weeks to flatten the curve,” only to discover that two weeks was “totalitarian code” for two years. You were told stay-at-home orders were to prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed, only to be told afterward that continued lockdowns were necessary to crush the virus at every cost. 


President Biden promised that vaccines and masks would not be made mandatory, but for months he enforced mandates on certain groups, such as healthcare workers and businesses with over 100 employees. 


Dr. Fauci said the vaccinated would not be required to wear masks because they would be protected, but later said there might be breakthrough infections that would require masking for everyone. It felt like a promise made today was a distant memory days later.


  • Competence: Do you believe the government is/was competent in their handling of the COVID-19 crisis? 


The pushing of mandates, travel restrictions, quarantine, and compulsory vaccinations would suggest many were not keen to voluntarily comply with restrictions. The public was told mass vaccination would end the pandemic if enough people got vaccinated, and President Biden said people would not get COVID-19 if they got the vaccine. 


This proved to be false, as later the CDC and Dr. Fauci revealed no one would escape the Omicron-variant, including the vaccinated. People became fed up and confused. Why were the vaccinated getting sick when told they would be protected? Approval ratings for Fauci and Biden began steadily declining.


  • Care: Do the individuals in power have your best interests in mind? 


Given the suppression of data, the inconsistencies in public health recommendations, and devastating consequences businesses and individuals suffered because of the lockdowns, you might question if your leaders truly value your well-being


Health agencies, including the CDC and World Health Organization (WHO), have allowed Big Pharma to be in the driver’s seat of the COVID-19 response, when most of the major players have a concerning track record of prioritizing profits over consumer health. 


With almost 1.5 million adverse events reported to VAERS since the COVID-19 vaccine rollout (and those reports are estimated to represent 1-10% of all adverse events), it is frightening there hasn’t been more attention paid to this data by top health officials. Unfortunately, Dr. Fauci, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and CDC are not addressing these concerns. 


AVFCA Trust Yourself

Follow Your Instincts

Trusting yourself can feel elusive. After all, you have to hold firm to your personal convictions when the rest of the world might be calling you wrong. The definition of self-trust is “the firm reliance on the integrity of yourself.” 


If you decide to take a vaccine, wear a mask, or quarantine, be aware of who you are trusting with your health. Ask yourself: “Without external pressure, would I be making this choice?” “Do I trust this is the best decision for my health?” “Does this choice go against my morals and beliefs, or is it in alignment?” 


Trust that you know what is best for your health and your body. Trust in the one person who will always be there for you…you.


Nobody is immune to herd mentality, fear, or authority. If you made choices against your better judgment, you aren’t alone. Decide how you will respond moving forward. What you choose should be personal and autonomous; not influenced by institutions in power.


At the end of the day, it’s your personal decision what you put in and on your body, and you are not wrong for choosing. If you felt duped, coerced, or manipulated anytime in your life, use that as a learning experience to identify who and what you trust, and why.




Published on December 22, 2022.


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