Whatever one’s political beliefs—and I myself live in a family with many disparate views represented—one thing is clear: there are psychological consequences to the protracted unease and tension that so many feel today.
As babies, our connection to our caregivers—our attachment figures—provides us not only with comfort and connection, but a way of making sense of our experiences. Life “makes sense” when our experience matches up with how those we are close to respond to us, as well with the messages we receive in the stories they tell.
These key relationships—usually with our parents when we are very young, but later potentially with teachers, peers, friends and romantic partners—provide a way of being seen for who we are, feeling soothed when we are distressed, and being safe as we are protected from harm. These three foundational “S’s” cultivate a fourth one, security. Without feeling seen, soothed, and safe on a reliable and consistent basis, we are left feeling emotionally fragile at best, broken at worst.
We can add a fifth S to our fundamental list of S’s: Sense-making.
One of the premier researchers in attachment, Peter Fonagy, and his colleagues have a term for the sense of security that arises when the way that our caregivers help us make sense of the world is consistent with how the world actually is: “epistemic trust.” This epistemic trust—being able to rely on the validity of what we experience and what we see and hear as related to us by those in a position of authority—is at our developmental core how we come to feel secure within ourselves, to trust others, and to feel at home in a world that makes sense. With such trust, we feel open and receptive; without it, we feel on guard and reactive, leaning toward fighting, fleeing, freezing or even collapsing with a sense of despair and helplessness known psychologically as “faint.”
If a child falls down and hurts her knee, a parent who denies that she fell, or that she was hurt, would be violating epistemic trust. Instead of being seen, soothed, and safe, the child is not only physically bruised but remains wary and reactive. Her lived experience does not match how her parent—her attachment figure—is relating to her about the nature of her fall. In contrast, a parent who sees the fall—even if it were his fault—and then acknowledges both the child’s bodily pain and her inner experience of upset feelings would be cultivating epistemic trust. Here what the attachment figure is offering as a view of reality is consistent with what the child not only saw and heard, but the actual experience of what they felt inside. Even with the physical injury, the child would now come to feel a receptive sense of trust rather than the reactivity that arises with mistrust.
Unfortunately, in today’s highly polarized political world, I believe that this important epistemic trust is being violated routinely; it’s hard to make sense of the world if there are warring reports even on what is real or not. Instead of living in a world where we feel receptive and at ease, many of us are on edge with a sense of reactivity—ready to fight, flee, freeze, or faint in despair and helplessness.
This morning, for example, I spent half of my elliptical workout watching the news on one channel, and then the next half watching another. The same day, the same news, yet two completely different reports. Making sense of the facts was a dizzying challenge while watching the media tell its stories; my chest felt heavy and my stomach uneasy. I was in the reactive state of epistemic mistrust. It feels as though our larger culture has become an unreliable attachment figure; it is not providing a secure cultural space of belonging. In this way, the war of conflicting stories about what is real in the world challenges our need for sense-making, violates our epistemic trust, and builds on a feeling of reactivity and confusion. Instead of feeling as though we belong, that we are seen and accepted for who we are, and that we are safe from harm, we feel in a reactive state of mistrust. Instead of having the trust of security, we have the lack of trust and the consequential insecurity that creates distress in our lives.
Is there a way to deal with such mistrust arising from the conflicts in what is being presented as real as conveyed to us by authorities and the media?
I think there is—and it would be organized around first building epistemic trust.
Here is an example. When we consider the consensus of the thousands of environmental studies and the research of life scientists worldwide, we get a sense of the “truth” about the precarious ecological health of our precious planet. Yet each day we face a deep epistemic challenge: on the one hand we have reports about rising tides and eroding shorelines but other newscasts discuss the need to protect national economic health and financial interests by curbing carbon emissions taxation. What a conflict. Hearing this disparity, you might have, like I do, the same nauseous feeling, a similar head-spinning heaviness, a sad, painful, heaviness in the chest.
If I were in a forensic debate, I’d anticipate hearing conflicting interpretations of the same reported events. In a courtroom or senate hearing—settings that are by definition not relaxed but are necessarily combative—we would expect the reactivity of threat and mistrust. But out in the world, especially in our local communities and larger culture, we might hope for some way to ease this reactive state of fight-flight-freeze-or-faint and instead generate a receptive state of sharing a common reality. Somehow, we might hope, we could take a deep breath, mutually creating and sharing a receptive state of epistemic trust.
As a scientist, I am trained to examine data from an empirical point of view and to challenge my assumptions—my own or those of colleagues. In other words, in science we are trained to think about how we think we know what we know. When we challenge data or study results, we are doing it from a foundation of accepted reality and in the spirit of getting to truth together. This approach—clarifying how we know what we know—could be what we need to rally around to build epistemic trust in our culture. Toward that end, we need to teach our children and remind ourselves that we rely on the stories we hear from others to get a sense of how things are—but that these stories may not always be truthful.
Rather than expect agreement, we can understand that values and intentions drive the narratives we tell, and knowing that we are being bombarded by conflicting values and intentions rather than evidence of reality may be helpful in distinguishing human stories from scientific analysis and facts. Having this awareness of the ways we come to know what we know can help us regain our footing amidst the confusion.
What is the meaning of this story I am hearing? How can I know if what I am hearing is real or not? These can be some clarifying questions that differentiate prior value judgements from empirical investigation. We can then come to expect conflict in the portrayals we hear and not be misguided to believe that we are being informed about the nature of reality—as we would expect from a trustworthy parent or friend. Intentionally recognizing and building our cultural epistemic trust with this epistemic meta-awareness—understanding how we come to share what we know—can form a foundation for resilience as we move in ways to help bring positive changes into the future. Just as we have “media literacy” to help youth and adults navigate the confusing world of media, we can have “meaning literacy” to remind ourselves about the meaning of the values and intentions embedded in the stories we hear each day and, importantly, distinguish these narratives from the nature of what is real.
Epistemic trust can be re-established if we start from these universal sources of truth in our lives. We need to begin by identifying violations to epistemic trust and talking about this important source of security in all of our lives. Layers of culture—from education to the media, parents to elected officials—shape our sense of epistemic trust. Helping each other build this deep epistemic trust can be an important step as we reach inward for clarity amidst the confusing stories we are told and outward for connection to one another in an ever more divisive world. We have a saying in how the mind and brain work: “Name it to tame it.” If we can name the distress we are experiencing as a violation in epistemic trust, we can come to build a more resilient path together. We create more security even in the face of the many challenges we will collectively face in the days ahead.
Fonagy, P., & Allison, E. (2014). The role of mentalizing and epistemic trust in the therapeutic relationship. Psychotherapy, 51(3), 372–380.
Siegel, D.J. & Payne Bryson, T. (2020). The Power of Showing Up: How Parental Presence Shapes Who Our Kids Become and How Their Brains Get Wired. New York: Ballantine.
Siegel, D.J. (2020). The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Shape Who We Are. Third Edition New York: Guilford.