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Why We Trust Strangers More Than Our Friends

We'll trust an unknown airline pilot to keep us safe at 30,000 feet, but heaven forbid we give our partner or neighbor the benefit of the doubt when they're having a bad day.
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Humans are trusting creatures, sort of.

In the collective sense, our society runs on trust.

I'm often stunned by how often we place our very lives in the hands of strangers.

Whenever I see a jogger blithely running along the side of the road with their earbuds in as the cars whiz by, I want to pull off the road and say, "Do you even realize what you're doing? You are trusting me, distracted, overly-tired me, with your life. You don't even know me, yet you're counting on me to stay in my lane and pay attention. Do you realize that you are just one distracted cell phone conversation away from certain death?"

Of course, I'm driving amongst hundreds of 40-ton trucks that could just as easily crush my small vehicle. The very act of driving is an act of trust. We trust that the other drivers understand the rules of the road and will follow them. We trust them not to be drunk or wigged out on drugs. We trust them to stop at red lights, stay on the right side of the road and to not make U-turns on the interstate. When someone violates the collective trust, we're stunned. Yet, we get right back into our cars and trust again.

Our lives hinge on trust. We trust airlines to train their pilots. We trust grocery stores to inspect their food. We trust cities to inspect their bridges.

One might argue that it's forced trust, because we have laws and pay people to enforce them. But, there aren't enough police officers and elevator inspectors in the world to monitor every situation. A functioning society depends on trust.

My daughter Elizabeth McLeod says, "It's calculated risk, because you don't really have any other options. The other person might not obey the rules of the road, but I have to get to work, so I'm willing to take the risk."

And 99.9 percent of the time, it works.

We get on the plane, eat the food and step out onto the bridge without even thinking about it. If we paused to consider how many times we place our lives in the hands of strangers, we would go mad.

Elizabeth, a college student who is clearly more insightful than I was at 21, says, "It's easier to look at a statistic like one in 75 drivers is drunk, and trust the odds, than it is to look at another person and say, 'I trust you with my life.'"

We trust strangers with our lives every single day. Yet why, in a society that functions on trust, are we so often mistrustful of the people that we actually know?

We second guess our colleagues' motives. We wonder if our kid's teacher really cares. We're quick to assume malice -- or at the very least, selfishness -- when our spouse forgets to do something.

We'll trust an unknown airline pilot to keep us safe at 30,000 feet, but heaven forbid we give our partner or neighbor the benefit of the doubt when they're having a bad day.

What would happen if we started trusting individuals the same way we trust strangers? What if we assumed that people are going to do the right thing? We might get burned one percent of the time, but think about how much time you would save, and how great it would be to live in a world where people automatically trusted you?

We humans have cast our lot together. Trusting each other is the only way we're going to get anything done.

Lisa Earle McLeod is a sales leadership consultant. Companies like Apple, Kimberly-Clark and Pfizer hire her to help them create passionate, purpose-driven sales forces.

She is the author of several books including Selling with Noble Purpose: How to Drive Revenue and Do Work That Makes You Proud, a John Wiley & Sons publication. She has appeared on The Today Show, and has been featured in Forbes, Fortune and The Wall Street Journal. She provides executive coaching sessions, strategy workshops, and keynote speeches.

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Copyright 2013 Lisa Earle McLeod. All rights reserved.