10/13/2014 02:32 pm ET Updated Dec 13, 2014

Excerpt of My New Book on Social Trust

Below is an excerpt of my new book on social trust and cohesion called The Leap the Science of Trust and Why It Matters.

Heights have put me in a panic for as long as I can remember. I hate balcony seating. I don't like looking at tall buildings. A ride on an escalator can send me into a roar of shivers. I'm not against a little thrill-seeking. I've owned motorcycles. I've raced cars. My problem is high places, and the Greek myth of Icarus never made much sense to me. I've never seen it as much of a cautionary tale. It's more like a story of the obvious. Forget about the sun melting the wax of his wings. Who cares about his hubris. Of course, Icarus should have spiraled to his death. He tried to soar in the sky. What else could he expect?

But still, near the end of my research for this project, I decided to go skydiving. I had spent more than a year researching issues of social trust, and I wanted to see what I had learned. Are we really that trusting--and trustworthy? Is there a scientific basis for our cooperative ways? Is there a way to rebuild our social fabric? I was also inspired by writers like Jeff Wise, who went skydiving for science for his engaging book Extreme Fear.

We know that fight-or-flight chemicals shoot up when people are scared, of course. But what would happen to oxytocin? Would intense fear also cause the trust hormone to shoot up? It shouldn't. Fear is an ego-driven emotion, and when the stress hormone cortisol rockets through our bodies at full blast, the limbic system takes over. Pain feels distant. Muscles tighten. Blood vessels expand. Thoughts become narrow and focused, and when psychologists give cognitive tests before high-stress events, people are often unable to answer a basic question like what's three plus nine. To put it differently, fight-or-flight isn't just a response system. It can become an autopilot system that takes over our bodies.

Paul Zak, a neuroeconomist at Claremont Graduate University, knew this as well as anyone, and in studies, he's found that when people have high levels of cortisol, they tend to act more selfishly. In economic games, they're not as trusting or as trustworthy. During stressful events, testosterone levels also often spike, and the male hormone has a different effect than cortisol. Testosterone builds strong muscles and thick beards. It encourages risk taking and makes people less trustworthy. Basically, it's what makes people act like they're aggressive, entitled teenagers.

Still, Zak believes that our oxytocin-based bonding system remains strong even in the most heart-thumping moments, so when a graduate student mentioned skydiving as a way to test his theory, Zak thought: Great idea. Zak had already done two experiments on himself, and each time, he sampled his blood before and after he went skydiving. The results were hardly scientific. These were illustrative examples.

But the data were suggestive. Zak's cortisol levels skyrocketed, and on the first dive, the stress hormone jumped 400 percent. More surprisingly, Zak's oxytocin levels also ticked upward, increasing more than 40 percent. "It's remarkable that the oxytocin system works in this sort of situation," Zak told me. "I mean, think about it. You're literally scared for your life."

In the weeks before the jump, I thought a lot about Zak's "scared for your life" comment. Way too much, actually. Low-level panic attacks would strike without warning. In the middle of the afternoon, sitting in my office, I'd imagine myself jumping out of the airplane, and my chest would grow empty. My hands would tremble. I'd start to cough and choke. Over time, I became convinced that when it came to oxytocin, Zak must have been an outlier. Why would your body release a social hormone if you were convinced that you were about to die?

My fears grew worse, and the night before the jump, I had friends witness the signing of my will. I took a horse-sized dose of Ambien but still couldn't sleep. My body was nervous and twitchy, and by the time I arrived at the skydiving center the next day and met up with Zak, it felt like panic had short-circuited my brain. I couldn't seem to make any sort of decision. Would I need sunglasses? Should I bring a snack? Did I need to go to the bathroom one more time? My brain couldn't quite get a fix on the answers.

Then, much sooner--and much later--than I had hoped, Zak had drawn my blood, and I was shaking hands with my skydiving instructor, Christiaan Rendle. He was broad-shouldered and ponytailed, and I pestered him with one query after another. How often have you been skydiving? Ever had any problems? Did you pack our parachute? It turned out that Rendle was one of the most experienced instructors at the skydiving center. He had done some fourteen thousand jumps and had served as a stunt double in movies and TV commercials. As for the parachute, he didn't pack it himself, and yes, there was a second parachute in case the first one didn't work.

Rendle hustled me into the plane along with Zak and his skydiving instructor, and what happened next is a jumbled sequence of vivid snapshots. The hawkish profile of the pilot's face. Another skydiving instructor telling some corny jokes. Rendle snapping me into what was essentially an adult-sized baby carrier.

In the plane, Zak sat a few feet away from me. "You all right, Ulrich?" A dull pain roiled my stomach. Sweat coated my palms. Someone had already jumped from the plane, but the thundering noise made it too loud to hear any of his screams. It seemed like the sky had just swallowed him alive.

"Yup, I'm good!" I yelled back.

Then, endless minutes later, Zak and his skydiving instructor belly-flopped out of the plane. And then, slowly, like some sort of barely working stop-motion movie, step by slow step, foot by slow foot, Rendle and I hobbled to the open door. I was swaddled by then, and Rendle more or less had to shove me out into the sky.

"Holy fucking shit! Holy fucking shit!" I kept screaming at 120 miles per hour, my body stretched out like a kite. In midair, as I was plunging downward in a screaming, explosive rush, Rendle tapped me, reminding me to release my grip on my harness, and then without warning, after a long velocity-filled high, it was over, and the parachute opened up above us like a giant nylon cloud.

As we floated to the ground, I quickly re-realized my fear of heights, my deep hatred of being off the ground, and eventually I landed on a grassy field. Zak quickly escorted me back to skydiving center, where he would take my blood. I knew, of course, that I had trusted Rendle that afternoon. But would my oxytocin levels go up? I wasn't sure, or as Zak told me, "You looked like a robot up there."

Zak turned out to be half right, and before the jump, my oxytocin was at bottom-of-the-test-tube levels. It seemed as if there was barely a peptide of the trust hormone floating around in my blood. But after the leap, my oxytocin levels had leapt upward by 193 percent. "Huge trust response," Zak explained. I looked at the results for my other hormones. They had increased, but not nearly as much as oxytocin. My testosterone levels were up 8 percent. Cortisol levels increased 9 percent.

Given what we know about stress, it's obvious why my cortisol and testosterone levels increased. But it's not at all clear what might have prompted oxytocin release. When I reached out to neuroscientist Larry Young, he told me that the cause may have been dopamine. "Perhaps the excitement of skydiving stimulated oxytocin release, which then could make the social cues of whoever you are with more salient," Young wrote in an email. "Perhaps when a couple of guys fight off and kill a lion, they feel the exhilaration but also develop a bond."

The data suggest that the brain's bonding system works even in the most stressful of stressful situations, although that still needs to be confirmed. "A two hundred percent increase in oxytocin is extraordinarily rare in all the experiments we've run, and you had it under such high levels of stress and testosterone," Zak told me. "It really tells you that we have a powerful kind of survival system around connection and oxytocin, and if we want to understand human nature, human society, this is a big part of the story."

For Zak, the point is that even when we're supposed to be at our most selfish, even when our lives are on the line, we're built to connect. For centuries we've referred to our species as Homo sapiens, which comes from the Latin for "wise man," but I think we've been wrong. Our cooperative ways, our social side, has often mattered far more for the success of our species than our "wisdom," and we might be better off thinking of ourselves as Homo confido, or "trusting man." That, it seems, is a more accurate description of who we are.

The first lesson? We need to do more to consider the perspectives of others. When I first met my skydiving instructor, Christiaan Rendle, he told me that he had a sense of what I was going through. He didn't joke about it. He didn't make me feel spineless or simpleminded. "For a lot of people this is probably one of the most adventurous things they'll ever do," Rendle told me. "They might spend six months planning it, thinking about it, building it up. I always try and remind myself that this is a big deal for people." In other words, even after having done more than fourteen thousand jumps, Rendle tries to show some sympathy for first-timers.

When it comes to trust, building faith in friends and family is often relatively easy. What's harder--and, frankly, far more important--is building faith in people outside of your group. Almost every expert in social ties--from Paul Zak to Robert Putnam to Frans de Waal--highlights the importance of this issue, and indeed, it's at the very center of social trust. Or better yet, ask yourself: Do I interact with people who look different from me? Do I engage with people who have diverse political views? Do I spend time with people who make more or less money than I do?

In this sense, journalist Robert Wright had it right when he recently argued that one of the nation's most pressing issues was the fact that people don't look at problems "from the point of view of other people." As Wright suggests, this means that if you're a gun owner, you might need to understand that not everyone shares your passion for assault rifles. And if you're not a gun owner, it means realizing that people who buy guns often see their weapons as a civil right.

The second lesson is that trust is ultimately a choice. Before I jumped out of the plane at Skydive Elsinore, I had to take a short class and watch a training video. The instructor reviewed all the key lessons with me as well. I knew exactly what I was getting into. This helps explain why schooling often leads to higher levels of social trust; with more education, we're more understanding. This idea also goes back to the story of subway driver Hector Ramirez. We want people to have their own sense of right and wrong. We want people to have a feeling of autonomy. As a society, we don't want to force trust. We want to grow trust.

The third lesson is one that football coach Bill Walsh might have expressed best: "Success belongs to everyone." Or consider this anecdote: Shortly before Rendle and I stepped into the plane, I joked that it should be easy for me to trust him. After all, if Rendle made a mistake, we would both plummet to our deaths. But Rendle quickly corrected me, pointing out that we needed to work together. If I didn't arch my back, the two of us could flip over in midair and potentially have a dangerous landing. He made it clear that we were in the jump together, that we needed to work as partners.

And finally there's this fact: No one wants to jump out of a plane with a hole in his parachute, and when we think about trust, we also need to think about trustworthiness. At the micro level, we need to focus on ourselves. If we want the faith of others, we need to ask: Am I honest? Am I dependable? Do I deliver results? For individuals, the trust-building process doesn't so much begin with faith. It begins with reliability and performance, and we often overestimate how much others believe that we are trustworthy.

At the macro level, the questions around trustworthiness are similar. Do our institutions inspire trust by being productive, transparent, and accountable? Does our society promote justice and equality? Does our economy ensure that everyone gains? There's no doubt that many of our institutions could do better. Within government, agencies will sometimes fail to track performance and show that they are, in fact, responsible and outcome-oriented. Our justice system doesn't do nearly enough to build a sense of shared values either, and too often individuals view our legal system as unfair--and illegitimate.

Or just consider our nation's ever-growing levels of inequality. Because of the yawning gap between the rich and poor, we're less likely to trust--and less optimistic about our future. In a way, we're coming across an idea that we've already seen: When it comes to our faith in others, trustworthiness is the difference between trusting well and trusting poorly. And we need to do more to build this sort of trustworthiness--and this sort of trust. That means stronger communities. That means a deeper social fabric. That means understanding that trust is ultimately a risk--one that might not always pay off. But above all, it's time to leap.

Excerpted from The Leap: The Science of Trust and Why It Matters (Amazon Publishing/New Harvest) with permission of the publisher. © 2014 by Ulrich Boser.