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.

Trust Metrics: Breaking It Down

How can you measure trust?

Consider a simple equation:

Trusting  x  Trusted  =  Trust

In other words: if someone is trusting enough to take a risk (the trustor), and if someone else is trustworthy enough to be worth that risk (the trustee), then when the two parties are a “match” – and you get “trust.”

Suppose you could quantify each.  Note that there is more than one way to get the same result for “trust.”  For example:

  • a “trusting” rating of 8/10 and a “trustworthiness” rating of 3/10 might give a “trust” score of 24 out of 100 – 8×3;  and
  • a “trusting” rating of 4/10 and a “trustworthiness” rating of 6/10 would give the same “trust” result – 4×5, or 24.
But what does this mean?

Most of the Data Doesn’t Support Decisions

Most of the trust data out there (think Edelman Trust Barometer, or Pew Research) isn’t about either “trusting” or about “trustworthiness.” It’s simply about the end result, trust. And that’s not very enlightening.

Suppose we get a series of data points about trust, and that they show a decline over time, from 26, to 24, to 20. Does that mean that the trustors got more gun-shy and less willing to trust?  Or does it mean that the trustees became more shady, and less trustworthy?

Measuring only the result – trust – is like saying the results of the Yankees vs.Tigers game was 3-2 – without telling you the winner. It’s like saying that the average household income of a small town is $500,000 – without mentioning that one of the residents is a billionaire. It’s like saying that unemployment is down – without mentioning how you count those who are not looking.

If you were to pass laws about regulation – you might want to know the driver of decreased trust. If you were building a marketing campaign – you might want to know which factor shifted. And if you were observing a pattern between two firms,  you might want to know why trust declined – was it because of less trusting, or because of less trustworthiness?

There’s a lot more to be said about this rarely observed but simple distinction: let me just point out that there are in fact some sources of data that are actionable and help us get at causal drivers, rather than just identifying results.

The Trust Matrix

The matrix below shows some of these relationships.

1. In the upper left box – Individual Trusting – academics are well aware of the General Social Survey, a fifty-year database with an impeccable pedigree, which permits some fascinating conclusions about our propensity to trust others. Hint: it’s gone down. We’re becoming more and more suspicious in principle.

2. In the box Trustworthy Individuals, the pre-emininent database may be my own company’s Trust Quotient. With over 25,000 data points, a time-proven insight called the Trust Equation, we can now state categorically which gender is more trustworthy, which of the four trust factors are harder drivers of trustworthiness, and the relationship of trustworthiness to industry.

3. What about the critical question of organizational trustworthiness? This is a question  we keep trying to answer by reference to trust surveys, which are unable to yield the answer.  The best source I know of is Trust Across America’s database of publicly traded US companies (they’re working on expanding it). They have a composite definition well-grounded in commonsense and objective databases, and some compelling data about the correlation between corporate trustworthiness and economic performance.

4. The bottom left box – an organization’s propensity to trust – is something for which I’m not aware of any data.  Would someone please correct me if I’m in error?  My working hypothesis is that this box has declined considerably.

JP Morgan himself may have lent on the basis of character, but the industry he left behind lends only on secured assets. Except, of course, when they lay off risk through ever-increasingly complex transactions.

Companies routinely won’t even trust small subcontractors, insisting that they self-insure against things like falling on sidewalks. It seems to me that corporations consider a propensity to trust to be roughly tantamount to stupidity. It’s hard to be a trusted organization if you systemically and systematically distrust your stakeholders.

5. Finally, the last column – measurements of trust itself – needs conceptual clarification.  When we look at data that says “trust is down,” there are four meanings.  We might be referring to trust between individuals, trust between organizations, or trust between organization and individual (with two variations depending on which is trustor and which is trustee).

To Mean What You Say, Say What You Mean

Any of us – not just researchers or academics or survey-takers – can contribute significantly to the discussion of trust simply by being clear about what we mean. If you want to say that bankers have become banksters, then point to data about the decline of trustworthiness on the part of banks – not to composite data that blurs the trustor-trustee distinction.

If you want to say that trust is up in the sharing economy, then use data that talks about the propensity to trust, not just the end result of trustor-trustee interactions.

I have a feeling that some significant chunk of the debate about trust could be improved by simply using clearer language to reflect clearer thinking.

Can You Trust the Data on Trust?

It’s late January. That means the business media are full of two events: the Davos World Economic Forum, and the Edelman Trust Barometer (announced at Davos, of course).

This is the 11th year of the Trust Barometer, which means it’s a measurement that increasingly permits study over time. It’s a rich source of information and idea generation, and Edelman deserves a lot of credit for establishing and continuing the series. And yet—the survey is still frustratingly unclear about the very definition of the thing it purports to measure—trust.

What is Trust?

Let’s break this down. Let’s get simple. You can trust—and you can be trusted. They are not the same thing.

  1. You can measure people’s general inclination to trust; in fact, it is regularly measured in the General Social Survey, an NSF-funded effort that has been in place for over forty years. It shows a long, slow, steady decline in the US population’s tendency to trust others.
  2. You can measure the objective trustworthiness of institutions by identifying behaviors and marking them with metrics. This is the approach taken by Trust Across America to identify trustworthy companies.
  3. Finally, you can take opinion polls about the level of ‘trust’ that people have in business, media, banking, etc. This is Edelman’s approach; they do phone surveys of over 5,000 people asking them how much they trust an entity or institution.

The problem with approach 3 is that it combines approaches 1 and 2, to the point where you can’t identify the cause of a shift in answers.

A concrete example: Edelman’s comments on a chart titled Trust Index: Brazil Rises, US Declines:

“[From 2008 to 2011] we took an average of trust in NGOs, business, media and government… The US moved from fourth from the top to third from the bottom [ahead only of the UK and Russia]…that’s a major change. The other major change is Brazil went from eighth place to first place.”

What in the world does this mean?

  • Does it mean that, in the last three years, Brazilian government, business and media have become more trustworthy, while US government, business and media have become less trustworthy?
  • Or does it mean that Brazilians as a people have become more trusting in the last three years, while Americans have become less trusting?
  • Or does it mean a blend of those two forces? If so, what’s the mix? Are trustworthiness and trusting-ness moving in the same direction, or in different directions? Whatever does this all mean?

Here’s a hint. It may not mean any of those things. Look at the 3-year growth in GDP in the United States—pretty flat, with that horrible negative number set around 2008-09. Now look at the 3-year growth in GDP in Brazil—7 of 11 quarters show growth above 4%, and 6 of them growth above 6%.

What would the US survey numbers look like if US GDP had matched Brazil’s? I suggest—about the same as they did in Brazil.

The thing is, short-term surveys about specific objects of trust are more like popularity contests—they are heavily driven by economics and current events. When the economy turns up, so will trust in business, and in government. This kind of ‘trust’ changes quickly.

The ‘trust’ that Edelman is measuring has a lot in common with consumer sentiment surveys, brand recognition surveys, or even popularity contests. Nothing wrong there. Nobody has a patent on any one definition of trust. But what are the implications of using this particular definition?

Just what is it we’re talking about here?

Trust, Reputation and Communication

Here’s Reuters’ opening paragraph in a story on the Trust Barometer titled Trust in Business Tumbled in 2010: Survey:

Americans’ trust in institutions of all kinds dropped last year as persistently high unemployment sapped people’s confidence in business and government, a newly released study found.

So—is trust the same as confidence? Or is confidence a driver of trust?

The Financial Times offers yet another synonym, in its headline, “US Public Loses Faith in Business.” Is trust the same as faith? And, by the way, faith in what? Faith to do what?

The story gets more muddled. Reuters again:

People in the United States…said they trusted the auto sector, following the successful initial public offering of General Motors Co…That change, [Edelman] said, reflected a belief among the public that automakers were starting to tackle their problems.

What is it that people are trusting the auto sector to do? I may trust GM to get financing, but not to sell me a better car. Which question am I answering when I say, “I trust GM?” (To put it technically: the meaning of ‘trust’ is highly contextual–trust to do what? Without context, the meaning is unclear).

The Financial Times reports, “Mr. Edelman said he was “shocked” by the global rebound in trust in carmakers.” I’m less shocked, because it’s clear that only the people who answered the question knew what they meant by their answers.

Edelman itself says “trust is critical as a driver of corporate reputation.” Which says something about Edelman’s view of what is really important about trust—not trust itself, but its effect on corporate reputation.

As Edelman EVP Ben Boyd points out, these days one voice won’t do—the CEO must be coupled with a technical person for product crises, for example. He also says, it’s critically important that communications be multi-channel and frequent because, in the US, 85% of respondents “needed to hear data about a company 3-5 times before they would believe it.

And now we’re getting to the heart of the matter. Edelman is a PR firm, and their perfectly natural tendency is to view the world through the lenses of communications and reputation. And if the survey says people won’t believe you until they hear it 3-5 times, then by golly you’d better tell them 3-5 times! Problem is: the overload of spam, tv ads, junk faxes, robo-calls spin interviews arguably caused the need for multiple information hits. This sounds like concluding that the solution to message overload is more message overload. Ask the pharmaceutical industry how that’s worked out.

From that perspective, the Trust Barometer is a longitudinal study of consumer sentiment, intended to improve corporate messaging and communications so as to ultimately improve corporate reputations.

There’s nothing wrong with that. But I don’t think it particularly helps to make companies more trustworthy; nor do I think it helps people become more trusting. Which, I guess, means it doesn’t all add up to a net increase in trust.

I myself would prefer to see corporations more focused on doing the right thing, instead of focusing on trying to convince their consumers, through multiple iterations and multiple spokespersons, that they are doing the right thing.

The Trust Barometer cannot tell us the difference between trustworthy behavior and people’s moods. It is built to help those whose job it is to craft the images that people hold about companies, and not to help those who would take dead center aim at those companies’ behaviors.

That’s fine. There’s a valid role for communications, and it looks like this:

  1. If my company is doing a better job than the public thinks I am doing, then I need PR. No one is better off if people think worse of me than I deserve.
  2. But if I know my company is doing a worse job than the public thinks I am doing–then I had better hire consultants, shake up management, and tell the PR firm to shove off, until such time as I’ve fixed some basic issues in my business.

We have more than enough Type 2 situations to afford the luxury of over-indulging in Type 1.

Trust the Trust Barometer—but be careful about what you trust it to do.