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Surprising Science

The Neuroscience of the Debt Talks Collapse

The bitter political divide over the budget deficit is the result of a trust deficit, says Jonah Lehrer. Trust is about trading favors, but faced with large budget cuts, there are none left to trade. 

What’s the Latest Development?


Senate and House leaders have mere days before the U.S. exceeds its borrowing limit with still no clear plan about how to proceed. What has caused the apparent breakdown in the American political machine? Lack of trust, says Jonah Lehrer, referencing studies that suggest people trust each other when they stand to benefit from maintaining a reciprocal relationship. This is the essence of pork-barrel politics. Trust is cultivated across the aisle by trading favors, by spreading the pork around. But when it comes to budget cuts, there is no pork. 

What’s the Big Idea?

Trust, then, is less about altruism than about self gain. While this sounds grim, if we understand the constituent elements of trust, we can allow them to create a better outcome. In the case of politics, especially given current negotiations over the debt limit, we should accept horse trading and pork-barrel politics as a means to create a more effective government. But still the question remains: “If trust begins when we share the treasure, what happens when there’s no treasure left to share?”


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