Can You Trust the Statistics on Trust?

The ZDNet headline is striking: “Americans trust Amazon and Google more than Oprah (and Trump).”

Wow! Ring the alarm bells, right?

The article goes on to cite the underlying study, from Morning Consult, called Most Trusted Brands 2020. Those brands range from the US Post Office to Hershey and Cheerios, from “religious leaders” and labels on food packaging to Oprah and Warren Buffett, from extreme weather warnings to Tom Hanks.

Both make a big deal about the validity of the study, averaging 16,700 interviews covering 2,000 brands. With such an impressive load of statistics, who could doubt the findings?

Me, for one. And so should you, after a minute’s reflection.

In fact, these ‘findings’ are about as meaningful as the results of a poll asking, “Which is nicer: a rhinoceros or a tricycle?”

Blurred Lines

The problem doesn’t lie in the statistics – it lies in the question being asked.

In this particular survey, the single question asked was, “How much do you trust each brand to do what is right?” The answer range was a lot, some, not much, not at all, or don’t know.

Whenever you encounter a study that offers to compare trust, you should ask yourself – trust to do what? The more specific the answer to that question, the more informative it is. The vaguer the answer, the less meaningful it is.

For example, “I trust Cheerios to avoid food contamination” would be fairly informative. You could compare the Cheerios score to Wheaties’ score. But you couldn’t compare it to Oprah or the Post Office, simply because neither has much to do with food contamination.

In this case, the question is “to do what is right.” But what does that even mean? Is there any “right thing” that covers both Warren Buffett and a weather forecast?

Comparing “the right thing” for religious leaders with “the right thing” for food packaging labels is not just apples and oranges: it’s apples and Sherman tanks. Any definitional overlap is at such a high level of abstraction as to render it nearly meaningless.

Proper Stats

Statistics like these do have two uses.

First, they are great clickbait. But, that’s the problem.

More seriously, they actually are good for tracking comparisons over time. If there is a decline from 2018 to 2020 in people’s ratings of how likely Tom Hanks is to “do the right thing,” that reflects a real shift in people’s perceptions of “America’s dad.” But comparing Hanks to Hershey? That’s just silly.

The ways people actually use words is an anthropological fact, one we can’t change. But that’s no reason responsible researchers shouldn’t use words with care. And this is not a thoughtful or careful use of the word ’trust.’

In this case, they’d be far better off talking about ‘brand image,’ or ‘reputation,’ or simply ‘positive feelings.’

For example, the ZDNet article says, “There was but one [brand] that was trusted ahead of Amazon and Google: the United States Postal Service.”

But – to do what?

If the answer is “to deliver packages” – a pretty core mission of the Postal Service – sorry, I give the nod to Amazon. Yet the article chooses to focus instead on Amazon’s connections to home surveillance and connection to police forces, suggesting that the Post Office is more ethical than Google.

If you can’t be precise in defining “trust to do what,” then it’s like any weak syllogism: from a false premise, any conclusion follows.

Sorry, this is just sloppy thinking. It’s akin to bar arguments about the greatest rock ’n roll band, or the all-time NBA dream team. Actually, it’s worse: it’s like arguing whether Tiger Woods or Serena Williams is the greater athlete.

Again, it all depends on answering “trust to do what?” The more vague the answer, the less useful the statistic – no matter how many decimal points you can point to in the data.



Why Trust Statistics Can Be as Misleading as Crime Statistics

In each pair, guess which city has the higher violent crime rate? 

Lexington, KY vs. New York City    ___

Tucson, AZ vs. Los Angeles, CA    ___

Tulsa, OK vs. San Jose, CA           ___

St. Paul, MN vs. San Antonio, TX   ___

Memphis, TN vs. Detroit, MI           ___

Minneapolis, MN vs. Houston, TX ___

As you might have guessed, the data are a bit counter-intuitive. In each pair, it is the smaller City (listed first in each pair) that has the higher crime rate. Data are from the FBI and the US Census Bureau.

The FBI goes to some trouble to warn against using their data in precisely the ways I just did—to rank cities by their crime rates.   The FBI says:

For example, one city may report more crime than a comparable one, not because there is more crime, but rather because its law enforcement agency, through proactive efforts, identifies more offenses. Attitudes of the citizens toward crime and their crime reporting practices, especially concerning minor offenses, also have an impact on the volume of crimes known to police.

They are quite right to warn. During the Nixon administration, the US government founded the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration within the Justice Department. On the statistical front, the LEAA developed the National Crime Victimization Survey, an antidote to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting. The UCR had simply measured police reports; the LEAA took a survey approach, by contacting the whole population. Results varied widely, particularly in cities like Philadelphia, with police forces long suspected of under-reporting crime stats.

Trust Measurement and Definitions

Trust statistics are even more suspect than crime statistics, I suggest. In part this is due to definitional issues. On Edelman PR’s Tweetlevel tool, the New York Times twitter account scores 94.2 on trust—lower than Perez Hilton (94.3) and Justin Bieber (the King of Trust, at 97.5).

Trust Measurement and Volume vs. Frequency

But more importantly, human beings are likely to confuse buzz, spin and hustle with underlying reality; raw numbers with frequency.

Ask yourself: compared to ten years ago, with how many people outside your immediate family and co-workers do you interact daily?

# of Daily Interactions

a. 10 yrs ago

b. today

Walking around








Twitter, Linked-In












 Now:then (b:a)



Go ahead, fill it in. And let us know what your two columns added up to, this could be an interesting social statistic. (My own scores were 43 vs. 225, for a now:then ratio of 5.23).

Your now:then ratio indicates the number of Trust-Pointä opportunities you have in a given day: in my case, over five times what I used to have.

My bet is that, on any given day, I will have more instances of distrust than I had ten years ago. And yet—on any given day, I will be disappointed by far fewer people proportionately than I was ten years ago. 

Now: suppose I answer a trust survey that asks me, “How trustworthy do you find people these days?” 

·    How many of us answer “not as much as before” because we’re thinking of the increase in the absolute number of untrustworthy interactions?

·    How many of us answer “more than I used to” because we’re thinking of the decrease in the frequency rate of untrustworthy interactions?

I honestly don’t know the answer to that one. Nor, I suspect, do the people answering the survey themselves. Which suggests, if anything, that the people doing the survey haven’t got much of a clue either.

Caveat statisticator!

The Vocabulary of Trust on Twitter

iStock Texting in meetingTrying to define the word “trust” is a bit like defining obscenity. As former Chief Justice Potter Stewart said about the latter, you can’t define it, but you know it when you see it.

My favorite example of this is, “I trust my dog with my life—but not with my ham sandwich.” It’s a joke we all get; but it does wreak havoc with a straightforward definition of the word.

To put it another way, the meaning of the word is contextual.  A dictionary is not a book of symbolic logic; it is an anthropological document. It tracks how real people in the real world use real words.  And the more contextual the word’s meaning, the more we have to rely on straightforward anthropology.

One of the real worlds of today is Twitter land. For about two months now, I have been tracking the use of the word "trust" as it is used in various conversations on twitter. It is interesting to see how the language used by real people and unconscious conversation tracks very neatly with the usages of "trust" identified previously in articles and blog posts on this website.

The Several Meanings of "Trust"

I have suggested elsewhere that we sometimes talk about trusting, and other times we talk about being trusted, or trustworthy. There are other times when we talk about trust per se, meaning the state that exists on both trusting and being trusted are present. Following are some examples of each (typos left in for authenticity).

Examples of trust meaning "trusting"

  • what i learn from @utterperfect : Never trust anyone a 100%. You’ll never know what the people around you are capable off.
  • Posted my favorite butternut squash ravioli recipe. Trust me, it’s worth the effort.
  • Better of with just friends with benefits. Bc I don’t trust no1 anymore!
  • @Antoniogreen Yeah I trust in God & I’m not scared to die, I’m just scared to die in pain you know.
  • damn. people suck. no wonder its hard for me to trust people. Now i can’t tell if there telling the truth or not.
  • i have trust issues
  • Preview: Luke 17:3-4; When I have forgiven I will trust ..
  • Have Rules But Trust People you can’t have a rule for every situation.

Examples of trust meaning “trustworthiness”

  • RT @amlibraries: Top 100 health websites you can trust
  • @craigbutcher @paulums never trust french hosting
  • @NICELOOKNINA girl never trust annnyone who’s nice to everyone.
  • @sydsouthworth The externals work great for storage just don’t trust it only. Use other media as well like DVDs
  • Some trust in silver and some in gold some in chariots and horses but ill put my trust in the LORD for in HIM is safety and security.
  • @Mister_Magister Did I or did I not make you tofu you actually liked? Always trust a foodie 😀
  • Never trust anybody who says ‘trust me.’ Except just this once, of course. – from Steel Beach
  • @BillyTheBrime Trust me, I’m an expert ma’am.
  • And it backs up my view that you should never trust the moral right;)
  • Ok, we’ve had booby-trapped shoes and undies. Which piece of clothing will imperil lives next? I don’t trust cufflinks.
  • "Man made alcohol, God mad marijuana, who do you trust?"

Examples of trust meaning “a state of trust”

  • Talk it out. Come to a compromise. Don’t just keep someone around and then cheat on them. You risk your reputation as a person. No trust.
  • RT @DIJONES82: In my world trust is more important than love.
  • Another thing lacking in the Black American relationship is communication which breeds trust
  • Sugar Mtns 7 brand tenets: Trust, Clarity, Experimental, Intelligent, Remarkable, Consistently Good, Full Flavored.
  • It takes years to earn trust, and just moments to break it.
  • Is trust as important as commitment in marriage? After all, marriage is a covenant, right?

What Meaning do Trust Measures Assume?

When you think about trust patterns or read statistics about trust, ask yourself: what meaning is being measured?

• Is it the trustworthiness of someone or some institution? (Typical question: how much do you trust banks to do the right thing?)
• Is it the ability of someone to trust? (Typical question: do you think people are generally trustworthy?)
• Is it the state of trust in general? (Typical question: Is this a high-trust environment around here?)

Are you measuring changes over time (longitudinal)? Or are you thinking of contrasting levels (used car dealers vs. lawyers vs. nurses)?

Patterns of Trust on Twitter

I have not yet systematically analyzed the data, but I can make a couple of generalizations.

  • The word "trust" gets used very frequently; at 11PM (US EST) on a weeknight, about 100 tweets every 7 minutes employ the English word “trust.”
  • On Twitter, as compared to business, the meaning “trusting” is probably more common, and the meaning “trustworthiness” is probably less common.
  • The most common usage is probably the imperative “trust me,” closely followed by the imperative “don’t trust ___.”
  • There is an emerging meaning: the word by itself, as in “it’ll all work out: trust,” or “keep the faith, baby: trust.” It has a combined sense of “trust me” and “don’t worry.”


Who Should You Trust on Trust in Business: Yankelovich or Fortune?

Whom do you trust on the subject of business trust?

Before I give you any data: write down which you’re most inclined to trust on the subject:

a. Daniel Yankelovich, doyen of opinion research, who says trust in business is down these days;


b. Fortune Magazine, who says trust in business is up these days.

Here’s what each has to say.

Fortune, April 30, says:

the big picture showing a broad business return to a respectable role in American culture is undeniable. Americans today trust business far more than at any time in recent years, at least by some measures. A new poll from the New York City-based Edelman PR firm, the latest in a series conducted since 2001, shows the highest level of trust in business that the poll has yet recorded: 57% say they trust business to "do what is right." That’s even higher than in the palmy days before the Enron scandal broke.

By contrast, Daniel Yankelovich, interviewed in McKinsey Quarterly (subscription only), says:

A lot of business people are under the impresion that because there isn’t as much talk about the scandals, mistrust of business has receded. Research shows the opposite: the lack of trust in business has grown. At the peak of the scandals—say, in 2002—36 percent of the public agreed that you could trust business leaders to do what is right most of the time or almost always.

Since the scandals now seem to be behind us, you would think that the level of trust would rise. Instead, it fell to 31 percent in 2004, and to 28 percent in 2006. So there’s a continuing erosion of trust.

[we’ve had] three waves of mistrust in business and other institutions over the past 75 years…the other two waves lasted about 12 years, and we are now in the 5th to 6th year of this one…you shouldn’t be misled by the lack of media attention to the scandals, because the mistrust continues to grow.

There. Now that’s cleared up—what can we conclude?

1. Surveys depend strongly on how one words the questions
2. That’s especially true for terms like “trust.”

To find out the answer, we turn to you, dear readers.

What do you think? What has happened to trust in business in recent years?