Trust through a Smokey Wire Lens: I. Individual Aspects: Guest Post by Peter Williams

I asked Peter to reflect on what trust means and how it can be improved. He generously contributed this series; this is the first of three parts. Thank you, Peter!

Sharon and I, along with several other folks, have been sharingideas about trust for some time here, especially recently and often around issues of wildland fire and prescribed burning. The main reason is, when it comes to public land management and natural resource management these days, many might say that trust is the coin of the realm. And, today, especially with wildland fire, stakes are getting higher and that coin is getting more valuable.

What do we mean by coin here?  Well, when you have trust, you can get things done that might not otherwise be possible, you have earned trust that is like capital you can spend.  When you don’t have it, it’s like having a deficit, a lack of capital.  Even little things can take a big investment, often of other types of power but also often of real money, real capital.  

Chief Moore recently ordered a pause on prescribed fires of USFS managed lands in part because of a loss of confidence, very related to trust (see TSW discussion HERE). Even much smaller, very local issues are often driven by trust or its absence. 

But trust is one of those words, like power.  We all think we know what it means, at least in some basic way.  The more I look at it, though, the more convinced I am that trust has more depth and nuance as a concept than many of us realize.  Perhaps more importantly, there are those pesky questions about how to build trust, how to keep it, how to work with it so it grows as part of a virtuous cycle and doesn’t become part of a viciousone. 

I’ve found it helpful to look at trust in two ways.  One is psychological because trust starts with individuals and is very personal.  The other is sociological because trust works in verysocial ways.  This article will focus on the psychological aspects and a second one will talk about the more sociological aspects.  A final third article will try to tie some of these threads together in a discussion about building, keeping, and working with trust and with the understanding of trust suggested in the first two articles.

Psychologically, trust is often understood as having three interrelated aspects: cognitive, emotional, and behavioral.  Cognitively, trust is based on what you think you know about a person or organization, a cognitive understanding of something that has happened in the past.  Cognition, then, is the thinking, rational part of trust, the perception part. 

Trust also is based on how you respond emotionally to what you think you know, like when you commit emotionally to what you believe about how a person or organization will behave in the future.  Confidence in future behavior is a form of emotional trust.  In a sense, emotion is the belief and feeling part of trust, what you feel or believe because of what you perceive. 

Lastly, trust is also based in how a person behaves in response to what they feel and think, in response to emotion and cognition. In this sense, trust doesn’t exist unless someone is willing to act or behave in a trusting manner, unless there is a manifestation. Behavior, then, is the action part of trust, how you behave in response to what you perceive and feel. 

Seeing trust as having these three psychological aspects—what you think, what you believe, and how you act—is helpful for at least two main reasons.  First, it suggests that each informs the others, so understanding and thinking about all three is important.  For example, if someone behaves like they trust you, you can assume they know or believe something good about your past behavior and are willing to believe your future behavior also will be good, however they might define good.  Similarly, whether you perceive or think someone’s behavior is trustworthy is typically informed by what you believe or feel about that person, their organization, their community. 

Second, this understanding of trust also suggests severalapproaches to building trust and an advantage to pursuing thosesimultaneously.  To build trust, for example, you can behave in trustworthy ways others can experience and, thus, establish a cognitive basis for them to trust you.  You might also appeal to someone on an emotional level, in a sense inviting them to see your behavior as trustworthy. And you can invite behavior from them that will build trust in others, that will encourage others to trust them.

Something to think about too is the relationship between trust and perceptions of risk.  To build trust, for example, behaving in trustworthy ways often means behaving in ways that allow others to feel less at risk, less exposed.  But what does that look like?  

The key, it would seem, is to have some reasonable understanding—even if just a reasonable guess—of what makesthose folks feel at risk, what makes them feel vulnerable.  For wildland fire, is it risk of property loss?  Perhaps its risk tohealth or even personal safety.  It also could be risk tocommunity, a loss of identity of some sort.  Maybe it’s a loss of control. And these possible risks are typically related to each other, meaning it’s important to think about a range of plausible perceptions of risk, as opposed to worrying about which are most shared or some measure like that.

So, this look at a way to understand trust from a psychological perspective gives us some ideas for how to build trust. Yet, trust is also very social, which is what we’ll look at next.

10 thoughts on “Trust through a Smokey Wire Lens: I. Individual Aspects: Guest Post by Peter Williams”

  1. Thanks for setting the foundation Peter with this very important topic. There is so much that goes into each psychological part, cognitive, emotional and behavior. There is much complexity between the interactions of cognitive and emotional understanding and how these lead towards behavior, although sometimes forcefully changing behavior has to come first while working to change cognitive and emotional understanding, such as with some addiction situations.

    I think land management agencies primarily work on the cognitive portion of the equation while neglecting the emotional part. This makes sense since these agencies are full of people who specialize in the sciences and are often a bit introverted. Also, with the notable exception of the National Park Service, little money is spent on hiring people with strong backgrounds in the fields of education, interpretation, and human behavior.

    Thank you Sharon for initiating this important topic as I believe it is difficult to effectively manage public land without an emphasis on working with people of all ages. I spent my entire PFT USFS career strongly focused on the human aspect of land management. I will be traveling tomorrow afternoon and all day Thursday, but will catch up with the discussions when I get settled in.

  2. I’m not seeing any substance in this first of 3 posts. Hopefully your next posts offer more than this?

    In particular there seems to be an intentional disconnect with prescribed burn planning as relates to mapping of areas that burn in wildfires each season. The whole routine of claiming “massive backlog” in prescribed burns seems more and more dishonest and unworthy of trust as millions of acres burn, but aren’t reflected or changing the planning process in a comprehensive way.

    Specifically, how many acres burned in wildfire’s each year were low to moderate intensity that met the objectives and reduced prescribed burn backlogs, as well as how many acres were destroyed by high intensity burns that totally wiped out areas that can no longer benefit from prescribed burns, but will need them once the regrowth can handle it?

    What’s broken and leads to our lack of trust in forestland management is that natural and normal tree mortality in forests ecosystems, as well as wildfire-based mortality is not fully integrated with mortality created by chainsaws and prescribed burns, which in the case of New Mexico wildfire is unplanned for massive mortality across 300K+ acres that burned in just one fire. How do we trust ya’all when you don’t even document when you screw up, but avoid it and try to hide it from your planning process?

    Where are the maps of all wildfires and controlled burn perimeters of the past 80 years as correlates with timber harvest maps so we can have a valid planning process that measures cumulative impacts and helps us focus on triage?

    It so dishonest and will never earn our trust when the only way to address cumulative impacts and land use history is to do it ourselves and then use the court room to get accountability because foresters try to keep projects separate and isolated in order to dishonestly avoid a more comprehensive view of what’s happening across the entire system.

    What’s worse, in a time of rapid climate change driving far more wildfire intensity, it’s 100% pure stupidity to not reduce the amount of burning across the board by using soil health building activities of chipping debris with a wide range of woodchipper sizes rather than irresponsible slash burning that starts massive wildfires.

    But instead of this kind of substance we get vague philosophical conversations about the psychology of trust? Give me a break! So dishonest by every measure!

    • I guess you sure like your chipper. I saw a area along the highway to Crater Lake last year where the FS used a mechanical mulcher to thin and area along the highway. It looked good. Of course it was mostly flat ground. I remembered when on site chipping was a big deal, then the market collapse for hog fuel. I am assuming you live in Western Washington and have some forest ground. I am sure one of your biggest efforts in taking care of your forest is thinning it out. Things really grow on the westside. I find wood rots pretty fast too so I fine small scale chipping unnecessary and a lot of work I’d rather avoid, but each to there own. Fire can make things disappear pretty fast too.
      I think trust starts with a conversation where people listen to each other with a common goal and without name calling no matter what ones perceived ideas are. Then real trust is developed by actions. Mostly by doing what was agreed upon, doing what you said you would.

    • I’d be interested is some discussion of the role motives play in trust. For example (from above), “because foresters try to keep projects separate and isolated in order to dishonestly avoid a more comprehensive view of what’s happening across the entire system.” Are there facts that support such a motive? If so, how could the resulting distrust be mitigated? (As a planner, I’m interested in this issue, where I assumed that priority maps are based on the best available scientific information about the current conditions of the land with regard to fire risk, regardless of how they got that way.)

      Then there’s, “How do we trust ya’all when you don’t even document when you screw up, but avoid it and try to hide it from your planning process?” This implies a motive of saving face, which is not an unreasonable motive and I suspect not an uncommon barrier to trust.

      • The initial psychological framing of trust actually might help here. Motives operate in at least two ways: ACTUAL motives behind someone’s behavior and PERCEIVED motives attributed by someone else as being behind that behavior. So, in your example, saving face might be an actual motive, but we don’t know for sure. At a minimum, it is an inferred one, one you perceive as having been the motive.

        My sense is that the Deane’s example of “hid(ing) it from your planning process” might not reflect a perception or inference of saving face as a motive, but perhaps reflects a perception of something less noble. If that’s the case, then we actually have a nice example of two different inferences about the same behavior: saving face and something less noble, whatever that might be.

        Going to the second part of your question, about mitigating distrust, the next two parts of this three part series should get to that fairly well. For now, one approach might be to recognize that facts alone won’t mitigate distrust, but facts can be an important piece for making a change and creating opportunity for trust.

        Other pieces might include recognizing that some folks may have infer or attribute some bad intentions to previous, past behavior and that has to be overcome. Going further, it might help to just acknowledge your actual motives, like explaining why projects are handled separately, and then acknowledging that some folks are suspicious of that for good reason. The first acknowledgement goes to cognitive explanations, perception and reason, while the second goes to emotional aspects, showing some vulnerability. Combined as actual behavior, you have all three aspects of trust as a psychological process: cognitive, emotional, and behavioral.

        Hope this helps and also sets us up for the next two entries in this series.

        • Two more thoughts on the personal post in this series..

          (1) There seems to be some overlap between “having good relationships with people” and “mutual trust”. Which could lead us into “what does a good relationship look like?”

          (2) I had employees tell me that they didn’t understand the reasons for my decisions. So I said “you should ask in the moment if you are curious.” They said “we don’t believe that you are telling us the actual reasons.” Reflecting on this, I suppose that there was a sense of both intuition and experience that led me to conclusions that were then justified by a logical argument of why that was the best course. So perhaps they were correct in that they sensed I was rationalizing logically a decision I’d come to by a sense of knowing.

          My point being that intuition is real, and useful, but like health effects of wildfire in the past, not cool to study in our so-called post-Enlightenment world. And intuition helps in decision-making, but we also have intuitions about people and their trustworthiness. After all, our successful evolution as tribal people depended for survival on predicting who was going to become a trading partner and who was going to attack when our back was turned.

          Which leads us back to the overlap between liking and trusting. Negative personal chemistry (another non-studied phenomenon; are we automata? I think not.) perhaps can also lead to mistrust.

          • There’s some really good material on the role of intuition in decision-making, often related to an entire discipline of study called “naturalistic decision-making”. Much of the research there includes attention to wildland fire fighters because its all about how experience allows intuition to develop and then guide quick, smart decisions in times of crisis.

            One of the challenges they’ve studied is how to build or develop these intuitional skills in more people earlier, which relates to some of the work on Lessons Learned.

  3. One thought about trust and what it may mean…. I once facilitated a rather tense standing-room only public meeting concerning a proposed wildcat oil drilling operation. It was to take place on the company’s private land within a subdivision made up of 40-acre lots. The sub-surface was federally managed. Some strong passionate and scared voices were heard. At one point I had a 6 inches apart face-face standoff with a large 6’5″ man when he called one of the panel members a liar. I told him he could disagree and he could be passionate, but he couldn’t get personal. There were many raised voices at the meeting, but at the end, several people came up to me and said variations of, “I don’t like what you are telling us, but I believe you are telling the truth.” What this said to me, was people trusted that what we were telling them was true, but they didn’t trust that the worst case scenario wouldn’t happen. I think this can also apply to use of prescribed fire.

    • Part of what may have been happening in that meeting is you were able to establish trust as an individual, as a person, even though many in the audience still might not have trusted the drilling company or the federal agency.

      Teaser for the next in this series: these are some of the sociological aspects of trust.

      • Probably partially true. I have lived in the area for decades and had been doing things to build trust for a long time. Just last year in my second year of retirement I got into a conversation with an 81 year old man out walking his dog on the Forest. He asked me my name and when I told him, he said, “People around here have a lot of respect for you.” In my opinion, building trust that sticks takes time, genuine honesty, humility, telling your own bad news, participating in local events and more.


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