Why Trust Matters in the Election

The 2016 presidential election has been interesting and shocking to say the least with many twists, turns and surprises. I am a psychotherapist and my interests lie in studying the psychology of people -- why do they do the things they do? What motivates people? How can this translate to creating a better world for future generations?

After the New Hampshire primaries, it was clear that trust and distrust were fueling the fervor behind the voters. Exit polls showed that 34 percent of Bernie Sanders voters found honesty and trust most important and 26 percent felt someone who "cares about people like me" was of highest priority, totaling 60 percent of voters who care more about empathy and trust than anything else.

As for Donald Trump, the same exit polls showed that supporters cared most about someone who "tells it like it is" and someone who is a political outsider. Half of these voters felt betrayed by the politicians of the Republican party. It's clear that someone who is perceived to "tell it like it is" feels trustworthy. What you see is what you get. People often like to see transparency (even if it's blunt) over dishonesty. It also seems clear that distrust in the establishment candidates has gravitated people towards Trump just because he is different.

After Super Tuesday, exit polls for Republicans (who overwhelmingly seem to favor Trump) showed that they were angry with many voters saying they felt betrayed by their party and they were mostly looking for an outsider candidate. Betrayal is an erosion of trust and a powerful motivator for the decisions people will make in this election.

On the Democrat side post Super Tuesday, Hillary Clinton is still facing challenges with voters and the trust they place in her. Voters still feel, largely across the board that Sanders is a more trustworthy candidate and for many voters, that holds a lot of weight.

What's clear is regardless of what your stance may be on a particular issue or the political party one identifies with, the commonality here is people want someone who they trust in power. Trust is so important because first and foremost it is a survival mechanism. Trusting the right people and distrust of those who might hurt us is essential to our survival.

Bruce Schnier, the author of Liars and Outliers says that given that there are inevitably always going to be people who are not trustworthy, society keeps damage to a minimum by using societal pressures: "morals and reputation are two, laws are another, and security systems are a fourth. Basically, it's all coercion. We coerce people into behaving in a trustworthy manner because society will fall apart if they don't."

John Gottman, a top researcher and relationship expert discusses in a highly informative presentation how trust is vital in how communities work. Furthermore, he cites research that states that low-trust areas in the United States are those that have "greater economic disparities between the very rich and the very poor--and the greater the discrepancy between the very rich and the very poor in a country, the more it predicts economic decline in that country. In low-trust regions few people vote, parents and schools are less active. There's less philanthropy in low-trust regions, greater crime of all kinds, lower longevity, worse health, lower academic achievement in schools."

Voters of Trump and Sanders also seem drawn to what Schnier refers to as "defectors." Defectors are often thought as untrustworthy but there are those that are good for society and who are the real change makers. I often hear arguments that Sanders and Trump are not electable in a general election because they are too radical. However, that may be part of the appeal to voters who embrace the defectors that are the change makers: "When society is in the wrong, it's defectors who are in the vanguard for change. So it was defectors who helped escaped slaves in the antebellum American South. It's defectors who are agitating to overthrow repressive regimes in the Middle East. And it's defectors who are fueling the Occupy Wall Street movement. Without defectors, society stagnates."

It is also important to mention the effect of empathy on the brain. Some research shows that empathy towards strangers triggers oxytocin release (a hormone that projects to brain areas that are associated with emotions and social behaviors). OT is also associated with attachment and bonding in mammals and recent studies in humans have revealed that OT promotes prosocial behaviors, including trust, reciprocity, and generosity measured using monetary transfers to strangers.

If voters are feeling that their candidate is empathetic, it not only evokes trust but inspires their generosity. It's no wonder that the Sanders voters feel so drawn to him and it may be part of the reason that he has raised millions of dollars from millions of Americans.

As the country progresses further into the primaries we will continue to hear that defectors and outsiders cannot win a general election but the power of trust should not be discounted and may be the determining factor of our next president. Regardless of the outcome of the primaries, this primary season has been a shake up and if the status quo stays, so will the distrust and the anger.