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.

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

    From Jim Monk:

    [Jim couldn’t get the posting working, so I’m entering his comments for him]

    I have noticed in the mirror that my face mostly molds into a fairly severe visage — maybe it’s age, maybe it’s my view of the world. I don’t necessarily like it, so I’m trying to change it. When I get out of my car, I tell myself — severely — “smile”.

    So I walk into a store smiling — I try to control the smiling to keep it to a quiet, no teeth showing smile — and it is truly amazing the reactions I get. Lots of people look at me and instantly smile back! This may have nothing to do with trust, but people really do react to how we present ourselves to them. Just a little ol’ smile can make a big difference!

  2. John
    John says:


    What a great reminder that the world we live in is a reflection of the world we envision in our minds. While it is easy to get caught up in the news of the day and the “evidence” that people/institutions are untrustworthy; it is good to remember that news is the most sensational outlier and it designed to get us to watch/read or listen to more.

    Most people want to help each other and as you state reciprocity is a magic formula. We are all in this together.

    Be well,

  3. John
    John says:


    This is a good reminder that the world we live in is often a reflection of the world we envision. It is easy to get caught up in the news and “evidence” that “They” are not trustworthy. It is good to remember that the news is the outliers of behavior and not the norm.

    As you state reciprocity is a magic formula and a way to remember we are all in this together.

    Be well,

  4. jacque vilet
    jacque vilet says:

    Charles — how to address the lack of trust that employees have in their employers that’s been exacerbated by the recession/layoffs, etc. Some say that the focus on employee engagement today is because employees believe companies feel they are expendable. Hard to get excited and invested in a company that tosses you when it suits them.

    • Charles H. Green
      Charles H. Green says:

      A very valid concern, in my humble opinion. Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.
      Then again, corporations can’t trust, and it’s only in a narrow sense that we call them trustworthy. That was always true. We need to find trust in human relationships much more than in corporate policies. And those companies that can’t figure out how to manage people — namely, with people — will lose people, and deservedly so.

      • jacque vilet
        jacque vilet says:

        Companies that come to mind that seem trustworthy to employees are Starbucks and Whole Foods. There may be others. It just seems a bit ironic that companies don’t feel particularly loyal to employees but they want engagement (new name is “passion”) from them.

        • TenYearTexan
          TenYearTexan says:

          This inequity struck me when I realized that companies expect two week notices, but give employees no notice and usually no severance. I guess that some things disappear forever despite our nostalgia – full service gas stations for example.
          I guess all you can hope for is a reasonably fun place to work. If we all quit the ones that were poor places to work, they’d go out of business or change.

          • jacque vilet
            jacque vilet says:

            Well to be fair —- U.S. companies that are above a certain size (can’t remember the # of ee’s) have to give 60 days notice under the WARN Act. Companies don’t have to pay severance legally —- but I’ve never heard of a company that doesn’t —- most companies follow what other companies do. Most give 2 weeks of severance for every year worked.

  5. TenYearTexan
    TenYearTexan says:

    Your article reminded me of two podcasts I’ve heard on the subject. I hope that you’ll check them out.

    1. Freakonomics Podcast [ Oct 9, 2011 ] – “Where have all the Hitchikers Gone?”
    Makes a very similar point – diminishing trust on the micro scale – specifically being willing to get into a car with a stranger has made us all less trusting of the world generally and fearful that it’s an increasingly bad place – one where kids cannot play unsupervised. Stretching your trust muscles will change your view of the world.

    2. London School of Economics [Nov 29, 2011 ] “Dazed and Confused” (00:30min into the lectures) by Jillian Tett former editor of the Financial Times
    Talks about how peoples’ trust in institutions has been shaken recently and they are more likely to trust facebook friends than investment bankers or politicians etc.


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  1. […] DATIS Blog article, “Why Trust in Our Institutions is so Low“, was originally written by Charlie Green, Trust Matters, on March 4, 2013 and was reposted […]

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