If Trust is So Far Down, How Come –

Everyone knows how to complete this sentence – “Trust these days is __up __down.”

You can’t throw a brick into the Googlenets these days without hitting some survey that bemoans the current low state of trust in society. And while there’s a lot of truth to those surveys, there’s far more uncritical thinking and sloppy theorizing.

The truth is, there are some powerful ways in which trust has actually increased in recent times, and even more in which trust has stayed broadly the same.

Some Basic Trust Definitions

Much writing on trust neglects to make two simple distinctions. The first is that between trusting and being trusted; both are required for trust, and they are quite distinct. I’ve written separately on that.

The other is between personal and institutional trust. Personal trust is by far the stronger of the two. You may trust Amazon, but it’s only to send you books; you wouldn’t let Amazon the company babysit your infant or search for imported food contaminants. And you’re a lot more likely to put your life on the line for your children than for your Coke/Apple/favorite brand. (A notable exception is national patriotism).

Most of the surveys that decry the decline in trust are talking about institutional trust. And it’s true: our “trust” in the judiciary has declined. Ditto for most professions, congress, the police, banks, retail stores, and established religion.

And yet…

If Trust is So Far Down, How Come—

  • – you entered your credit card number online last week – at least once
  • – some of you entered your credit card number online last week – from your mobile
  • – some of you use auto-complete on your mobile to fill in forms, perhaps even including your credit card number
  • – you share so much private information on Facebook
  • – you use Uber, Airbnb, Breather, or another sharing economy app
  • – you paid your property taxes online
  • – you hired a babysitter from Care.com

These are all small examples of how the world has become far more linked. Many of us wouldn’t have considered doing these things ten, even five years ago. These are examples of increased institutional trust. And, they are examples of trusting, the propensity to trust; at the same time, they suggest pretty high levels of trustworthiness.

At the same time, there are many examples of both personal and institutional trust that have remained largely the same, without much fanfare. For example, you probably still:

  • Ask your neighbor to hold your mail for a few days
  • Fly on planes
  • Don’t look right or left when the light turns green (though you should)
  • Drink the coffee / eat the food at nearly every restaurant in the world without thinking
  • Ask a stranger at the beach to watch your stuff for a minute while you go to the bathroom

In fact, an enormous amount of daily life consists of little examples of trust: mostly social and personal, but also institutional. Don’t let the headlines make you forget it.

Where Trust Really Is Down

That said, trust really is down in a few areas, and it’s important to be clear about just where.

First, there are indeed some ways in which people are less inclined to trust institutions than we used to be. But even here, read with a grain of salt. When people say they don’t trust Target (for example), they often mean something like “I don’t trust Target’s IT systems to ensure that my credit card doesn’t get compromised.”

Note this is an issue that didn’t even exist a decade ago. Also, it’s an issue affecting pretty much any large organization involved in financing. Also, and most important, check how many people have stopped shopping at Target because of concerns about credit cards – I’d bet very few.

Saying “trust is down” without specifying “trust to do what?” is silly. You might as well say “love is down” without grounding the statement in divorce rates, dating sites or something else concrete.

The most important way in which trust really is down is in what Eric Uslaner calls generalized trust. As measured by the General Social Survey for 50-some years, it basically asks, “By and large, do you think people mean well, or can’t you be too careful?” In other words, it is a generalized propensity to trust strangers.

On this measure, there is a very gradual, but nonetheless real, decline over the years. High levels of propensity to trust have been linked to education and optimism. Low levels of propensity to trust have been linked to pessimism and low exposure to out-groups.  It is a true, important, and sad, statement that trust in this sense has indeed declined in the US, and probably in most western world countries.

And that is something to be concerned about, far more than whether “trust” in the pharma industry is down x points on a survey last quarter.

3 replies
  1. Charles H. Green
    Charles H. Green says:

    [This is from Rich Sternhell]

    A very interesting post. I think there is a lot more to the issue of generalized trust than you’ve addressed and much of it has to do with the fact that we live in a much more broadly integrated (in many senses of the word) society than we did fifty years ago. There are multiple aspects to this.

    First is that local is more trustable than distant. We knew our shopkeepers and service providers because they lived in the same town we did. Second is that the people we interacted with looked like us, had names that were similar to ours and had similar ethnic, racial and social backgrounds.

    Until a few years before my family moved out to Long Island, there was a sign at the train station that said “No Dogs or Jews Allowed”. It wasn’t seen as necessary to mention the N word.

    Today, we all have friends whose names we struggle to pronounce. While prejudice is just as real as it has ever been, it no longer keeps people from earning a living or living where they want to. We get online help from people in Manila, Delhi or San Jose. We ride the trains or busses with people who don’t look anything like us. And even most of our clubs have become fully integrated (with precious few all male bastions).

    I would make the argument that there is both a biological and a learned hesitancy to trust as the distance from one’s immediate “tribe” increases. We unthinkingly cross all sorts of barriers on an hourly or daily basis today and that a decline in generalized trust is a natural consequence of that.

    Our high level of trust in the past came at the cost of excluding people who didn’t fit our “tribal profile”. It seems to me that a lower level of generalized trust is a small price to pay for that societal change. Those of us who are optimists believe that familiarity with people different than ourselves will allow the level of trust to rise over time.

    So is it really something to be concerned about? Or something that tells us that the world is in fact becoming a better place and that our loss of comfort/trust is a small price to pay for a more open society?


  2. Randy Conley
    Randy Conley says:

    Great points Charlie. Like many things in life, it’s easy to generalize the topic of trust and categorically say “it’s down.” But as you point out, trust is alive and well in many aspects of our lives, business, and society.


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