Step 2: The Scientific Method

All child-rearers—myself among them—are confused, mistaken, or ignorant about some things, so don't waste time insisting that your parents fix every glitch in your programming, or flagellate yourself for not spotting their errors. Just start using the scientific method to reboot your trust-o-meter. This involves three basic steps: making predictions about how the world works, looking for evidence to either support or disconfirm those predictions, and changing your hypotheses in light of what you see to be true.

Start by thinking of someone important to you, and rate your trust in that person on a scale of 1 to 5 (1 = lowest possible trust, 5 = highest). Then, evaluate the person by recalling your observations of his or her behavior.

Here are a few obvious questions I've found very helpful in quantifying the trustworthiness of people in my own life. The first three are the "yes" questions; if Person X is completely trustworthy, you'll answer yes to all three. The second three are the "no" questions—if Person X deserves your trust, the answer to all three will be negative.

The "yes" questions:

1. Does Person X usually show up on time?

2. When Person X says something is going to happen, does it usually happen?

3. When you hear Person X describing an event and then get more information about that event, does the new information usually match Person X's description?

The "no" questions:

4. Have you ever witnessed Person X lying to someone or assuming you'll help deceive a third person?

5. Does Person X sometimes withhold information in order to make things go more smoothly or to avoid conflict?

6. Have you ever witnessed Person X doing something (lying, cheating, being unkind) that he or she would condemn if another person did it?

These questions might seem trivial. They're not. As the saying goes, "the way we do anything is the way we do everything." I'm not saying we have the ultimate power or right to judge others. But if you trust someone whose behavior doesn't pass the six screening questions above, your trust-o-meter may well be misaligned. If Person X rated more than one "no" on the first three questions, and more than one "yes" on the second three, they don't warrant total trust at present. If you trust someone who blew all six questions, you need some readjustments. You don't have to change Person X (you can't), but you do need to take a hard look at your own patterns of trust.

By the way, if you're now rationalizing Person X's behavior with arguments like "But he means well" or "It's not her fault; she had a terrible childhood," your trust-o-meter is definitely on the fritz. These are the small lies we use to tell ourselves we're comfortable when we aren't. It's not the end of the world if Person X lies to you. Lying to yourself, on the other hand, can make your life so miserable, the end of the world might be a relief.

Next: Learning to Trust Everyone and Everything