For a long time (too long), I was the sort of person who believed that most people who held elected positions or other high-powered jobs were qualified, and that’s why they had them. (Lol.) The older I get, the more apparently untrue this becomes. Politicians were the first to lose credibility (going to policy school will do that for you), and then cops, and, more recently, doctors — after reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s Natural Causes and listening to the Dr. Death podcast, especially, I’m feeling more wary than ever. Obviously, many doctors (and cops, and politicians) are decent people, who really do want what’s best for me, but that is no longer my default assumption. “Authority” doesn’t mean to me what it used to. In fact, there is only one authority figure in my life in whom I have complete faith: my trainer, Hans.
Most people, myself included, are inclined toward obedience. A study from 2016 on the subject echoed the findings of Stanley Milgram’s classic experiment, in which participants were pretty easily convinced to administer electric shocks to a third-party. The shocks weren’t real, but the participants didn’t know that; 65 percent of participants administered the study’s final “450 volt” shock, and every single person administered at least 300 volts. The newer study suggests little has changed — all most people (60 percent of their participants) need to comply with an order is a “limited nudge.”
And yet, our collective trust in authority has reached new lows, according to the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, as well as me, and anyone I’ve talked to in the past two years. Only 35 percent of both Trump voters and Clinton voters trust the U.S. government, and 59 percent percent of Americans surveyed said the most “broken” institution in the nation is the government (over NGOs, media, and businesses).
According to Adam Waytz, an associate professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management, trust requires four components: benevolence, integrity, competence, and predictability. He explains: “Benevolence essentially means, is this person a kind person? Integrity means, is this person an ethical person? Competence means, does this person have the ability to do what needs to be done? And finally, predictability means, does this person behave in a way that I can consistently forecast?”
Honestly, which authority figure can you think of that fulfills all those criteria? For me, it’s only Hans. Hans is nice. Hans seems ethical, at least in the gym environment. I know Hans is competent because he’s won like a hundred strongman lifting competitions. And he is predictable because every day after we train, he texts me the word “Sore,” with no punctuation, though I know it is a question. And today, when I responded “only a little,” he texted back “Awesome eat more.”
That is the other thing that makes me trust Hans: he only wants me to add things to my life, not take things away. More food (even more ice cream), more weight lifted. Part of this is specific to weight lifting, maybe, and that’s what makes it feel like the right form of exercise for me at this moment in time: no more trying to take up less space, to get thinner instead of stronger. Even when he tells me I should start drinking protein powder in water, an objectively disgusting concoction, I will do it, that’s how much faith I have in him. I wish I felt that way about more of my so-called leaders but it’s nice to have at least the one.