Who Do You Trust? What Trust Rankings Really Tell Us

You’ve probably noticed, from time to time, survey results on trust—which professions we trust the most, which institutions, which messages, channels, and so forth.

The most recent such data—from Nielsen— tells us that web users around the world trust the recommendations of others more than they trust advertising.

Other surveys tell us we put “a person like yourself” ahead of all others. 

Still others tell us the relative trustworthiness of various professions.
There are two messages in these surveys—one explicit, the other implicit.

The explicit message is the headline—we trust doctors more than newscasters, we trust blogs more than advertising, and so on. Those data tell things like “who’s winning,” and how Australians differ from Chinese. Interesting. Food for marketers’ thought. And great for parlor conversation.

But the implicit message is about the nature of trust itself. Which is not at all obvious.

Imagine a survey asked people “How closely are you related to other people?” Now imagine findings like: “Parents top the relation list; followed closely by children and siblings. Cousins are found to be less related, about tied with in-laws. Neighbors and TV sitcom families appear to be the least closely related.”

Silly, because such a survey just re-enacts a trivially true definition as if were a new empirical discovery.

But isn’t trust much the same? We all have an instinctive sense that we trust certain people more than others. If I know you, have history with you, have shared personal moments with you, converse with you, work and play with you—then the odds are far greater that I’ll trust you than I’ll trust someone two degrees away on LinkedIn.

So when Nielsen tells us that consumers trust consumers more than advertising, the headline is about the low trust scores of advertisers.  But perhaps it shouldn’t be.
Perhaps that finding rates a giant, massive “Duh!”

Perhaps the headline should be, “trust linked to personal relationships.”

A major business trust issue today is how to “scale” trust. What can be done to networks of strangers to approach the high level of trust we see in more personal relationships?

Some efforts focus on increasing network size—Amazon’s algorithm for predicting what books you’ll like, for example. It works very well—for predicting books you’ll like. But for whether you should buy a house now in this market?  Hmmm.

Other efforts focus on track records. Of those who recommend buying a house now, vs. waiting—who has the better record of predictions? This helps with investing—but do you trust your investment advisor to recommend restaurants?  Or to play matchmaker?

Still other efforts increase the bandwidth available for us to evaluate others: Facebook and owe a lot to the ability to let people be who they are, let it all hang out—and share it with others.

The most successful networks will be those that replicate the full human experience—providing us broad markets, rich data—and deep exposure to the humanity of the others that lets us create bonds.

Those are the networks that will end up being trusted. And end up scoring high on trust surveys.

It’s no secret.

Trusted Professions

Consultants’ News and the Institute of Management Consultants USA report on a survey about how much clients trust consultants.

Say CN and IMC:

Survey results…reveal that the consulting profession is viewed as trustworthy. When respondents were asked to rank a list of 10 representative professions from most trustworthy to least trustworthy, they ranked consulting as the 5th most trustworthy profession, behind nurses, doctors, teachers and accountants. Rounding out the list of professions were sales representatives, corporate executives, attorneys, journalists and politicians.

Hmmm. If you’re ranked fifth out of ten, you’re “viewed as trustworthy.” Presumably, sixth place gets you “untrustworthy.” There but for grace of sales representatives and journalists…

Want to know why nurses consistently rank #1 on these kinds of lists? Meet the President of the American Nursing Association. She could sell me a used car. Why? Because she virtually bleeds low self-orientation. You’d have a hard time finding less than six degrees of separation between her and anyone with a selfish bone in their body.

Similar results come from an Australian survey of trusted professions done annually since 1970. Tops are nurses, pharmacists and doctors; the bottom four—numbers 26 – 29—are various salespersons. Just above them, at 24 and 25 (out of 29) are TV reporters and newspaper journalists.

In Australia, unlike the CN poll, politicians barely outrank journalists. Pretty scary, for both countries, if you ask me.

In neighboring New Zealand, the top three trusted professions are fire fighters, ambulance officers, and—you guessed it—nurses. The bottom three (of 30) are psychics, car salesmen, and politicians. Wow—below psychics.

Edelman’s Trust Barometer , in 2006, reported:

Global opinion leaders say their most credible source of information about a company is now “a person like me,” which has risen dramatically to surpass doctors and academic experts for the first time, according to the seventh annual Edelman Trust Barometer, a survey of nearly 2,000 opinion leaders in 11 countries. In the U.S., trust in “a person like me” increased from 20% in 2003 to 68% today. Opinion leaders also consider rank-and-file employees more credible spokespersons than corporate CEOs (42% vs. 28% in the U.S.).

In 2004, the Public Broadcasting System was “the most trusted institution on a list of nationally known organizations in the country…” Hey, I’m a fan too. But shouldn’t the most trusted institution tell us who was second, how many there were, and who was in last place? Come on PBS, dish a little—you’ve got your credibility to defend here!

In India, media is the most trusted institution. In the Ukraine—at least in 2004—it’s the church.

While polling about trust in Serbia, there were problems:

"Concerning trust in Milosevic", Bogosavljevic continues, "it is notable that many people simply didn’t want to answer questions about him. For years ordinary people were taught that Milosevic was the greatest, and now they are told that they are supposed to be against him. Many of them simply can’t do this, so their response is simply to say ‘I don’t know’ or refuse to answer."

What’s it all mean?

Sometimes trust stays the same for a long time—part of our trust for nurses is that we’ve always trusted nurses. When trust changes rapidly, it can be disorienting to us.

There are few surprises in surveys—they almost always “make sense” when we hear results.

Most of all, trust touches our lives broadly—people, professions, and institutions are only a handful of arenas in which trust plays out in our lives. It’s neither simple, nor one-dimensional. And it’s all very human.