Yes Trust is Down – But Trust in What?

New headlines daily grace the front pages (or screens) of our news outlets that make us question just how far our trust in (fill in the blank) has fallen. Whether it’s politicians or social empires like Facebook, it seems that as individuals we are now in a constant state of “well who shouldn’t I trust now?”

In many ways it’s very true, but it begs an even more important question – if trust is so far down today, what does that really mean?

You can’t throw a brick into the Googlenets these days without hitting some survey that bemoans the current low state of trust in society. And while there’s a lot of truth to those surveys, there’s also a lot of uncritical thinking and sloppy theorizing.

There are also some powerful ways in which trust has actually increased in recent times, and even more in which trust has stayed broadly the same.

Some Basic Trust Definitions

Much writing on trust neglects to make two simple distinctions. The first is that between trusting and being trusted; both are required for trust, and they are quite distinct. Trust requires a trustor and a trustee – they are different, and asymmetrical. One requires taking a risk, the other requires, broadly speaking, a moral virtuousness. “Trust,” properly speaking, is neither one of those things: it is the result of an interaction between the two of them.

The second distinction is between personal and institutional trust. Personal trust is by far the stronger of the two. You may trust Google to find a babysitter to interview, but you don’t trust Google itself to babysit your infant. And you’re a lot more likely to put your life on the line for your children than for your Coke/Apple/favorite brand. (A notable exception is national patriotism).

Most of the surveys that decry the decline in trust are talking about institutional trust. And it’s true: our “trust” in many, perhaps most, of our political institutions has declined. Ditto for most professions, the police, banks, retail stores, and established religion.

And yet…

If Trust is So Far Down, How Come—

  • you entered your credit card number online last week – at least once – from your mobile;
  • some of you use auto-complete on your mobile to fill in forms, perhaps even including your credit card number;
  • you share so much private information on Facebook (even after all the recent news);
  • you use Lyft, Airbnb, or another sharing economy app;
  • you paid your property taxes online;
  • you may have paid for Amazon to deliver via FedEx a camera that shows your front door.

These are all small examples of how the world has become far more linked. Many of us wouldn’t have considered doing these things ten years ago. These are small counter-examples of increased institutional trust. And, they are examples of trusting, the propensity to trust; at the same time, they suggest that we assign some pretty high levels of trustworthiness to other actors.

At the same time, there are many examples of both personal and institutional trust that have remained largely the same, without much fanfare. For example, you probably still:

  • Ask your neighbor to hold your mail for a few days
  • Fly on planes
  • Don’t look right or left when the light turns green (though you should)
  • Drink the coffee / eat the food at nearly every restaurant in the world without thinking
  • Ask a stranger at the beach to watch your stuff for a minute while you go to the bathroom.

In fact, an enormous amount of daily life consists of little examples of trust: mostly social and personal, but also institutional. Don’t let the headlines make you forget it.

Where Trust Really Is Down

That said, trust really is down in a few areas, and it’s important to be clear about just where.

First, there are indeed some ways in which people are less inclined to trust institutions than we used to be. But even here, read with a grain of salt. When people say they don’t trust Target (for example), they often mean something like “I don’t trust Target’s IT systems to ensure that my credit card doesn’t get compromised.”

Note this is an issue that didn’t even exist a decade ago. Also, it’s an issue affecting pretty much any large organization involved in financing. Also, and most important, check how many people stopped shopping at Target because of concerns about credit cards.

Saying “trust is down” without specifying “trust to do what?” is akin to a non sequitur. You might as well say “love is down” without grounding the statement in divorce rates, dating sites or something else concrete.

The most important way in which trust really is down is in what Eric Uslaner calls generalized trust. As measured by the General Social Survey for 50-some years, it basically asks, “By and large, do you think people mean well, or can’t you be too careful?” In other words, it is a generalized propensity to trust strangers.

On this measure, there is indeed a very gradual, but nonetheless real, decline over the years. High levels of propensity to trust have been linked to education and optimism. Low levels of propensity to trust have been linked to pessimism and low exposure to out-groups.  It is a true, important, and sad, statement that trust in this sense has indeed declined in the US, and in most western world countries.

And that is indeed something to be concerned about, far more than whether “trust” in the financial industry is down x points on a survey last quarter.