Tim Lott: If we can't learn to trust each other, we will lose ourselves and our children

Britons have become so anxious about their offspring - and so fearful generally - that we forget what a true sense of security is,

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Who do you trust? Most people? Your family and friends? Yourself? Nobody? Individuals may have a different answer to each of these questions, but they will certainly have an answer. For a human being, as well as a society, the issue of trust is inescapable and fundamental, and it will do a lot to define not only who you are but how you feel and how you behave.

The issue of trust hit the headlines this week with the publication of a paper by the think tank Civitas entitled Licensed to Hug. The authors argued that the breaking down of trust between children and adults – evidenced in a mass of state-sponsored legislation to "protect" children – has led to baleful and negative consequences.

The report cites the example of a two-year-old girl who ended up drowning in a pond, partly because a male passer-by, who noticed the lost girl, refused to get involved because he feared being accused of abduction. It mentions a neighbour who, upon being visited by a child she didn't know, immediately turned up at the parents' house brandishing her Criminal Records Bureau credentials (essentially police clearance) – but didn't even offer her name.

I have a lot of sympathy with the Civitas report. I myself had a battle with my daughter's nursery after it put up "Stranger Danger!" signs all over the fences that surrounded the patch of open ground they play on. I found myself stomping about accosting other parents and complaining about how ridiculous it all was – essentially to teach young children to fear anyone who wasn't part of their in-group (and the in-group, ironically – friends, relatives, etc – is statistically by far the most dangerous place in terms of abuse of any kind).

I find it absurd that the teachers at my children's school aren't allowed to put sunscreen on their pupils, and incomprehensible that the children are forbidden to kiss one another. (Apparently hugs can be tolerated.)

Also, having done a stint as a single father, I have often been aware of the nervousness I have felt as a lone man in a playground full of children. It may be paranoia, but helping other children – say, down from a slide – feels like a risky act. Who knows who is going to at best remonstrate with me for touching their child, or at worst give me a punch on the nose? Moreover, this feels like a largely domestic phenomenon – it's hard to imagine such insecurities manifesting themselves in countries such as Italy or Spain where family life and domestic trust seem to remain at relatively realistic and benign levels.

It also seems to me that Britain – which once prided itself on its levels of citizen trust – is suffering, more generally, a decaying sense of its once commonplace belief in the goodwill of strangers. Certainly, if one looks at the uniquely high levels of surveillance technology, the demands for intrusive DNA databanks as well as the everyday levels of paranoia about our children, it appears that we are drawing more and more deeply from a dark well of collective anxiety, one which perhaps goes back to the national trauma of the James Bulger abduction 15 years ago.

A great deal has been written about our modern aversion to risk and the weight of legislation that reflects and reinforces that aversion. Certainly, I believe we have become too risk-averse, mainly because we don't have a good understanding of what represents a real risk. This could be partly solved by teaching a good understanding of the statistical probability of events in schools – being abducted vs being killed while a car passenger, for instance. But education and rationality would never completely solve the problem, because the crisis of confidence we have on our hands at the moment is not so much a matter of rationality, but of human irrationality. By that I don't mean too much irrationality – I mean the wrong sort.

I think irrationality is absolutely necessary for living a full life and entirely inescapable given the way humans are hard-wired. But in this case, we have to allow ourselves the sometimes counterintuitive sentiment we give the name "trust".

The fact that trust is irrational is acknowledged by the scientific community, and yet it doesn't doubt its value and its importance in human forms of organisation. Tomorrow, for example, at the Royal Institution, there is a discussion of the mystery of why, in a world where we are hard-wired for self-interest, that humans continue, against all the odds, to co-operate with and trust each other. The answer must surely be that it is functional in an evolutionary sense.

In common-sense terms, one can argue endlessly about whether it is right or sensible to trust other people. (Childcare manuals talk about children building up a sense of "love and trust" in a world where the opposite message is sent out by many institutions and individuals.) You may argue, for instance, that child abduction by strangers is no more a hazard now than it ever was, and that the hazard is tiny. Or you may argue (the figures are opaque and hard to establish) that there has been a rise in abductions, fuelled by the overall sexualisation of society and of children, and, in any case, no risk to your child is too small to cover with a precaution.

This takes us back to our opening questions. Who do you trust, and why? And why should you trust anyone at all? The hard-boiled nostrum that you "shouldn't trust anyone" is surely wrong. Your essential attitude to the world – even to insurance companies and builders – should start with a presumption of trust. This may sound hopelessly naive, but it isn't blind trust. I know people cheat, rob and lie – and, in rare instances, abuse children. And I will not give my trust to anyone who strongly arouses my suspicions or instincts against them, whether for rational or intuitive reasons.

But never to trust is a far worse position to find yourself in, both practically and psychologically, and a far more destructive message to send out to your own children. On the practical front, apart from anything else, if you don't trust people, they will inevitably sense it. And the result will always be that they will be inclined to exploit you, since you haven't given them any reason not to.

Of course, you may be taken for a ride but the worst kind of fool is one that lives in the narrow, cramped psychological world that a condition of perpetual distrust inevitably engenders. Far better to be let down occasionally than to spend your world in the half-light of fear and suspicion. Because trust is essential for the good health of the human soul. And the lack of trust won't protect you, because an element of risk, in all situations, is unavoidable. You are more likely to get your children killed driving them to school than get them abducted by letting them walk there.

At the extreme other end of this continuum are tyrants such as Hitler and Stalin, who trusted no one and went more or less mad. At a more domestic level, we are now a canker at almost every level of society. We don't trust teachers to teach, doctors to heal, judges to judge, students to learn. Everything is about a frenzied attempt at imposing controls from the top in order to assuage our fear of bad faith. We are seeing an epidemic of mass organised distrust. But the irony is these attempts create the bad faith they are trying to eliminate. The more you tell people they are not to be trusted, the more they will define themselves in those terms.

This is not only a personal point. Francis Fukuyama in his book Trust described the importance of "social capital", that is trust between groups in society, in securing economic prosperity. Trust in that sense is a deeply practical tool.

Trust is also closely allied to a larger concept – faith. Not religious faith, but the inevitable, irrational baseline of all our beliefs. We may believe in science, but even scientists have to have faith in the accuracy of their instruments and of their faculty of reason. Furthermore, if we cannot trust ourselves, than how can we trust the selves that tell us to distrust ourselves? It is a catch-22. We must trust or be lost.

I never got round to doing it, but I was going to have an inscription on my wedding ring "Fida Tota Est" – faith is everything. Which is another way of saying that trust is everything. Or as may favourite philosopher Alan Watts puts it: "Faith is an act of trust in the unknown. Faith in life, in other people, in yourself, is always a gamble because life is a gamble with colossal stakes. But to take the gamble out of the game, to try to make winning a dead certainty, makes for a certainty that is indeed dead."

The Royal Institution discussion Trust in Me? is at 7pm tomorrow, at 21 Albemarle Street, London W1S 4BS

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