Why Trust In Our Institutions Is So Low

Heads? Or Tails?The headlines, surveys and news stories are everywhere. Trust is down – in world leaders, in legislatures, in financial institutions, doctors, even religious leaders and educators. It is very, very easy to draw one conclusion from all this – that we have a crisis of trustworthiness.

Not so fast. That is a half-truth.

Trust is a Two-Sided Coin

One of the tragedies of discussions about trust is that the very language we use is flawed. Consider this simple, self-evident truth:

Trust is a non-symmetrical interaction between a trustor and a trustee. One trusts, one is trusted. One does the trusting, the other is the one who is trusted. To trust someone is different from being trusted by someone.

It would seem obvious that if there is a failure in trust, we should look at both sides to determine where the problem lies: is it in paranoid trustors, or in untrustworthy trustees?

And yet – the presumption we all make when reading those news stories is always about the latter – “It’s those lying ___’s, you can’t trust any of them, none of them are trustworthy.”

But what about the other side of the trust relationship?  What’s up with trusting?

The Problem of Low Propensity to Trust

I used to hitch-hike. Who does that anymore? I’m sure the proportion of people who lock their doors habitually has gone up. The proportion of people who buy guns for self-protection has gone up, just as crime has gone down. All these are daily indicators of a decline in propensity to trust.

At a business level, consider the enormous growth in lawyers. Consider the increasing length of contracts, for the most trivial transactions. Consider the ease with which people resort to civil lawsuits. Ask yourself what happened to the handshake deal?

At the national political level, I’m seeing articles about how President Obama might be lying to the world about chemical warfare in Syria. Let’s review the bidding, in reverse chronological order:

  • George W. Bush told us there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq
  • Bill Clinton said he didn’t have sex with “that woman”
  • George H.W. Bush said, “Read my lips – no new taxes”
  • Ronald Reagan said, “Trees cause more pollution than cars”
  • Jimmy Carter said he had left Georgia with a budget surplus – far from true
  • Gerry Ford lied about discussing East Timor with Suharto; not to mention Nixon’s pardon
  • And Nixon? Well, enough said
  • Turns out even George Washington’s cherry tree “I cannot tell a lie” story is itself apocryphal.

And the press? Well, what about the entire wink-wink/nod-nod approach to Presidential sexual liaisons back in the day of John F. Kennedy? That level of tolerance in the fourth estate is unimaginable today.

My point is not that society has become more trustworthy rather than less – my point is that people have, in many ways, simply become less willing to trust.

Low Trust: A Chicken and Egg Problem

Consider in your own life the truth of this quote: “One of the best ways to make someone trustworthy is to trust them.”  Or, “Whether you think good or ill of someone – you’ll be right.”

The principle of reciprocity underlies a great deal of human relations. We return good for good and evil for evil. The simple nature of etiquette is a way of ensuring that we practice reciprocity in all our daily doings.

So it’s only fair to ask: when there’s a crisis of trust – how much of it is due to lower trustworthiness?  And how much of it is due to our reduced propensity to trust?

You don’t have to be a Pollyanna about trustworthiness to see this. All that’s required is we stop being crybabies repeating endlessly, “Well Johnny did it to me first!”  Get off the paranoid pity pot.

At its extreme, a low propensity to trust descends into paranoia, resentment, low expectations, cynicism, tribal clannish behavior, lower levels of generosity and charity, and a “raise the gates” mentality. It’s not going too far to say that the roots of civic morality lie in the willingness to trust others.

What Can I Do?

Of course we can all do a better job of being more trustworthy. But that’s almost a passive activity, waiting to build up a track record that others can see. Interestingly, it’s a lot easier to practice trusting.  Here are just a few ideas to practice on in your daily life:

  • Smile at someone on the street, and don’t look away immediately
  • Ask someone at the coffee shop to watch your computer while you go to the restroom
  • Think what tool you have that a neighbor might benefit from using, and lend it to them
  • Join some form of the sharing economy
  • Practice not locking your car so often (not everywhere, I know)
  • Ask somebody for advice on something – then immediately take it
  • Ask a stranger to hold your briefcase while you tie your shoes
  • Ask a stranger to take a photo of you and a friend while on a trip

What else? What are some actions you can take to help increase the level of trust in the world? Please add your suggestions to the comments below.

After all, it’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.