Crime, Fear and Trust

Most casual readers of the general press know three things: crime is up, public safety is down, and trust is declining.

The problem is: the first two are flat out wrong, and together they cast doubt on the third.

Crime and Fear

(The following data are compiled from the Atlantic, March 2015, Be Not Afraid).

Fear: In the US, Gallup annually asks if crime is up or down from the previous year. Every year, and usually by large amounts (73% vs 24% last year) the public says crime has risen.

Fact: Violent crime has declined by 70% since the early 1990s. The homicide rate has been cut in half, and three years ago hit the lowest level since 1963. Rape and sexual assault rates declined 60% from 1995 to 2010.

Fear: 58% of the public fears another US terrorist attack, down not much from one month after 9-11, when the number was 71%. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff declared the world “more dangerous than it has ever been,” and that was two years ago and before ISIS.

Fact: Despite the horrific stories of ISIS, you’re four times more likely to drown in your bathtub than from a terrorist attack. Armed conflicts in the world are down 40% since the end of the Cold War.

And so on.

The point? Fear of crime and of danger are not necessarily linked to actual rates of crime and danger. In fact, myth is often negatively correlated with reality.

I’m fond of the saying, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”

But as ee cummings said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes paranoia is just irrational.

Trust and Statistics

What’s this got to do with trust? Good question.

First of all, ask yourself what the headlines say: Is trust in business generally up? Or is it down?  You all know the ‘right’ answer.

But trust has a definitional problem that crime doesn’t. Determining whether crime is really up or down is simple: look at the crime rate.

When it comes to trust, however there are three conceivable measures:

  1. Trust, the verb – are people more, or less, inclined to offer their trust in principle?
  2. Trust, the adjective – is business more or less trustworthy?
  3. Trust, the noun – is the resultant state of people’s trust in business up, or down?
Verb x   adjective  noun
Propensity to trust of trustor x trustworthiness of trustee = Level of trust achieved

All too often, the business press is guilty of mass confusion. When you see precise statistics from sources like the high visibility Edelman Trust Barometer, saying ’Trust in XYZ industry is up (or down)’  – ask yourself just what that oh-so-precise percentage is referring to. Does it mean:

  • People are X% less inclined to trust a given industry or company?
  • Industries/companies have gotten X% less trustworthy?
  • The state of consumer-to-industry trust has undergone an X% decline?

Presumably it means the last – the state of trust has declined. But here we have a problem – because we can’t tell which driving factor drove the decline.

  • Do we have a problem of paranoid consumers?
  • Or do we have a problem of endemic industry untrustworthiness?

If consumer fear-driven low propensity to trust is the root issue, then the financial services industry has got a public relations problem on its hands, and they should hire Edelman.

But if industry misbehavior is the root issue, then we’ve got a social, regulatory and political problem – throwing PR solutions at it won’t help, and may hurt.

Parsing the Data

There do exist some data. Every year the General Social Survey asks some trust questions, which are clearly of the “verb” type, assessing people’s general propensity to trust strangers in principle.

Here there is a clear trend: across the world, and particularly in the US, there is a secular decline in the level of propensity to trust.  So we have part of the answer: paranoia is increasing.

The question is: is the paranoia justified? Has trustworthiness declined, or has it increased?

I only know of two data sources that speak to that, and only partially at that. One is Trust Across America’s FACTS database, which gathers a number of data-points and aggregates them into measures of corporate trustworthiness. And while the TAA data does an excellent job of facilitating cross-company comparisons over time, its five years of data isn’t yet enough to speak clearly to aggregate trends.

The other source is our own Trust Quotient, or TQ, which overtly measures trustworthiness at the personal, not corporate, level.  We have noticed, both anecdotally and statistically, a gradual rise in the average level of TQ over the past 7 years. However, the data is self-reported, and is not a controlled valid sample of a broader population; it may just be grade inflation, or it may be comparing apples and oranges.

The conclusion? Except for the propensity to trust, which is clearly down on average, most trust data is either very specific and qualified, or definitionally vague.

I confess to some irritation on this topic. Trust is a serious issue, with many people seriously studying it, and doing so carefully. There are many more, however, who feel qualified to spout generalities and truisms about trust with no definitional clarity. Simply put, there is a lot of non-sense out there.

Next time you read something about trust being up or down, be critical. Ask whether the ‘trust’ being measured is a verb, an adjective, or a noun.  Ask whether pessimism is justified by data, or whether paranoia is overwhelming reality. Ditto for trust on the upside: if a company tells you their trust levels are up, push for definitions.

Don’t just nod your head: be a discerning student of trust data.




7 replies
  1. Barbara Brooks Kimmel
    Barbara Brooks Kimmel says:

    Charlie- A great article, but what’s the long-term solution? Until someone figures out a way to create something resembling a universally accepted “language of trust,” or some sort of standards, we will continue to be confused by our own dialogue and that of the “experts” be they real or otherwise.

    • Charles H. Green
      Charles H. Green says:

      Barbara, I’m a little more sanguine. I don’t think we need to create a universal ‘language’ of trust, I think we just need to get better about insisting on clarity in our existing language. I see it as a case of sloppy thinking, not of undeveloped solutions.
      And thanks for the great work you do at Trust Across America / Trust Across the World.

  2. davebrock
    davebrock says:

    Outstanding post Charlie! You’ve hit on a real hot button of mine around how data is manipulated to present a point of view. It would be naïve to think this is new, we see it all the time in political polls, consumer surveys, all sorts of things.
    But with the vast availability of tools, with the immediate access provided by social networks, individuals and companies have the ability to manipulate (maliciously or through stupid design) data and results to support whatever agenda they have.
    Here’s an example from my email box just this morning. I was asked to participate in a survey being conducted by organizations heavily involved in social media and tools. The cover letter said, implied it was being done in conjunction with Forbes Top X Social Influencers List.
    When you get to the survey, it’s a survey of how sales people are using social channels, what results they get, and so on.
    So we get an organization that has “promote use of social channels” agenda, with an underlying “if they do, I’ll have an opportunity to sell my tools and services,” doing a survey of people who are very active in social networks, with an objective of providing research data on the use and effectiveness of social channels and tools in selling.
    They don’t need to complete the survey for me to predict the results, “99.99% of responds find social tools critical…….”
    Again, this tactic isn’t new. But with the ability to exploit it becoming far more accessible, we can expect the sheer volume of leveraging statistics to mislead will increase dramatically.
    So when we get to the issues of trust and trustworthiness, it’s not difficult to understand the skepticism and perhaps cynicism with which people look at this stuff (even the stuff that is legit)
    One wonders, is this what we have to do in the ever escalating wars for mindshare? How do we hold onto and communicate a principle based approach to people and groups interacting with each other?
    In any case, thanks for the great article and the opportunity to get this off my chest!

    • Charles H. Green
      Charles H. Green says:

      The “ever-escalating wars for mindshare” are a big issue, I agree. Ever-scaling volume, so often the goal in our online world, drowns out quality. The rush to publish ‘content’ degrades the content of the ‘content.’ And, as you point out, it all opens up tempting opportunities for sloppy principles, or even total lack thereof.
      I do not have an answer, other than to continue to push for quality as the necessary, albeit insufficient, condition.


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