02/26/2014 04:44 pm ET Updated Apr 28, 2014

Fixing the Trust Deficit Matters More than Fixing the Financial One

The gears of government are grinding slower than usual because of a deficit in Washington. Yet even though budgetary squawking continues nonstop in the Capitol, it's not the financial deficit that appears at fault. It's a different shortfall -- one of trust -- that has put immigration reform and other initiatives on hold. As Speaker Boehner has recently noted, his caucus doesn't trust that President Obama will enforce any new laws as they intend, and as a consequence, the House Republicans refuse to enter legislative negotiations with him. In the Executive Branch, where mistrust of the House majority runs deep, the story is similar.

The enduring nature of this distrust has produced a relative paralysis of government. The forging of ambitious, consequential legislation appears out of reach for the time being. Yet although it's a regrettable situation, it's one that makes great sense on a scientific, if not practical, level. While it's true that more can usually be accomplished through cooperation than through individual efforts, cooperation comes with a risk. If a partner doesn't uphold his end of an agreement, he can profit at the other's expense. Optimizing one's outcomes, then, necessitates finding the correct answer to a simple question: Can a partner be trusted? If the answer is yes, then both parties will profit by combining efforts in ways unachievable on their own. But if the answer is no, it's likely better to work toward smaller, selfish gains than to loose whatever economic or political capital one might have at the hands of another.

Selfish government, however, is not optimal government, at least not for the governed. If Washington is to begin functioning well again, trust between those in power needs to be enhanced. Although on the surface this may seem to be an almost impossible task, in reality I think the odds are not so dire. As I argue in The Truth About Trust, rust in others -- even longstanding foes -- is more malleable than most people assume. To prove the point, one only need consider the events that occurred outside Ypres, Belgium on a cold December night in 1914. The British and the Germans had been fighting a bloody battle, but on Christmas Eve, as the British looked across the no man's land separating their trenches from those of the Germans, they began to see lights appear. Then they heard songs whose melodies they recognized as traditional carols. What happened next was amazing, even by the soldiers' own accounts. These men, who for weeks before had been trying to kill each other, came out of their trenches to meet, share trinkets and stories, and otherwise celebrate Christmas together. In those moments, they came to trust men who only hours before were their sworn enemies.

What caused this change? On a psychological level, the answer is straightforward: a sense of similarity. In the glow of candle lights and caroling, the men came to see their similarities as opposed to their differences; they suddenly perceived each other not as British and Germans, but as fellow Christians. In so doing, their minds, without any conscious intention, increased the empathy each held for the other. Surprising as it may seem, this isn't an aberrant phenomenon; it's one my research group has demonstrated several times. Put simply, the compassion and trust we feel for others isn't solely a function of the objective facts of a situation; it's greatly determined by whether or not we see ourselves in our potential partners. Creating temporary linkages between people, even in subtle ways, has been shown to alter the moral calculations of their minds. The more similar two people feel, the more willing they become to support each other, even though they may not know why. The rationale is simple. Although helping others is risky, helping those who are similar to you is a way of hedging your bets, as they're the ones whose outcomes are likely most closely joined with yours. As a result, similarity is the metric the mind uses to determine who it's worthwhile to trust and to help.

What such findings suggest for President Obama, Speaker Boehner, and any other politicians facing similar situations is that a top-down route to building trust -- one relying on rational analysis and calculations -- may not be the most efficient. It will be too easy to talk themselves out of cooperating given the hostility and entrenched positions of late. Rather, a bottom-up route -- one designed to leverage the innate mechanisms of the mind -- may prove a better method. Getting to trust will require less effort. The parties needn't convince themselves that the other is trustworthy; they only need convince themselves that they share some features -- any features -- in common. Doing so, while certainly not a guaranteed panacea, will begin to alter intuitions about the other's trustworthiness. And with those changing intuitions, as was the case on that night in 1914, might just come a willingness to take a risk to trust an old adversary.