Skepticism is an important trait — it’s the foundation of the scientific method, and it can keep you from being duped. We all know someone who is way too trusting, and we have all likely fit that description at some point.
On the other hand, there are those who seem to trust in nothing. The mainstream media, pediatricians, those pesky climate scientists — they’re all lying, somehow.
Which leads to the question, what’s a healthy level of skepticism? And if you tend to be overly cynical, what can you do about it?
Born to trust, learn to not
We all start out as incredibly trusting creatures. After all, we’re born into this world completely helpless, and dependent on others to take care of us. This innate trust carries us through adolescence, when we begin to question a bit more.
That’s how we learn to be skeptical. “Our skepticism and suspicion often begin when something goes wrong or when we have been let down,” says Rachel Botsman, author of Who Can You Trust? and an Oxford business school lecturer. “It can be something that happens directly to us or to someone close to us.”
Sometimes, though, things happen that cause us to stop trusting at all. And that’s when the “healthy” part ends.
Fortunately, anything you can learn, you can unlearn. If skepticism is leading you to bad results instead of protecting you, it may be time for countermeasures.
Get your oxytocin rolling
Research shows that higher brain levels of oxytocin — the neurotransmitter that is linked to social bonding — also correlate with higher levels of trust. Short of administering synthetic oxytocin up your nose via nasal spray, you’ll have to find other ways to boost your levels.
Practically speaking, this translates to a simple rule of thumb: If you want to be more open to an idea, person, or experience, hold off on making a decision about it until you’re in a happy mood — or artificially push yourself into one.
That could mean watching happy YouTube videos (research shows watching an emotional clip on YouTube raised oxytocin levels 47 percent over the average baseline). Also try gratitude exercises, making eye contact with another, or even the simple act of touch (consensual, of course).
Neuroscientist Paul Zak, founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University, sums it up this way: “You have to know how to turn it off. Some things you should be skeptical about, and some things you should just let go.”