Trust is eroding in America –for leaders, corporations, institutions, governments and for each other. The consequences may be far more damaging than changes in interest rates, GDP or unemployment levels.


Some Definitions


So what is the nature of trust? Trust between people, within organizations and countries is based on the perception that efforts between the parties will be reciprocated, and that reactions will be predicable and produce a sense of security for the parties.

Trust can be attributed to relationships between people. It can be demonstrated that humans have a natural disposition to trust and to judge trustworthiness that can be traced to the neurobiological structure and activity of a human brain. Some studies indicate that trust can be altered e.g. by the application of oxytocin.

When it comes to the relationship between people and technology, the attribution of trust is a matter of dispute. The intentional stance demonstrates that trust can be validly attributed to human relationships with complex technologies. However, rational reflection leads to the rejection of an ability to trust technology.

One of the key current challenges in the social sciences is to re-think how the rapid progress of technology has impacted constructs such as trust. This is specifically true for information technology that dramatically alters causation in social systems.

In the social sciences, the subtleties of trust are a subject of ongoing research. In sociology and psychology the degree to which one party trusts another is a measure of belief in the honesty, fairness, or benevolence of another party. The term “confidence” is more appropriate for a belief in the competence of the other party. A failure in trust may be forgiven more easily if it is interpreted as a failure of competence rather than a lack of benevolence or honesty. In economics, trust is often conceptualized as reliability in transactions. In all cases trust is a heuristic decision rule, allowing the human to deal with complexities that would require unrealistic effort in rational reasoning.

A person’s dispositional tendency to trust others can be considered a personality trait and as such is one of the strongest predictors of subjective well-being. It has been argued that trust increases subjective well-being because it enhances the quality of one’s interpersonal relationships, and happy people are skilled at fostering good relationships.

Trust is integral to the idea of social influence: it is easier to influence or persuade someone who is trusting. The notion of trust is increasingly adopted to predict acceptance of behaviors by others, institutions (e.g. government agencies) and objects such as machines. However, once again perception of honesty, competence and value similarity (slightly similar to benevolence) are essential. There are three different forms of trust. Trust is being vulnerable to someone even when they are trustworthy; trustworthiness are the characteristics or behaviors of one person that inspire positive expectations in another person, and trust propensity being able to rely on people. Once trust is lost, by obvious violation of one of these three determinants, it is very hard to regain. Thus there is clear asymmetry in the building versus destruction of trust. Hence being and acting trustworthy should be considered the only sure way to maintain a trust level.

Increasingly much research has been done on the notion of trust and its social implications: Barbara Misztal, in her book, attempts to combine all notions of trust together. She points out three basic things that trust does in the lives of people: It makes social life predictable, it creates a sense of community, and it makes it easier for people to work together.

The concept of the public trust relates back to the origins of democratic government and its seminal idea that within the public lies the true power and future of a society; therefore, whatever trust the public places in its officials must be respected. One of the reasons that bribery is regarded as a notorious evil is that it contributes to a culture of political corruption in which the public trust is eroded. Other issues related to political corruption or betrayal of public trust are lobbying, special interest groups and the public cartel.



Evidence from Research


  • The World Economic Forum’s bi-annual survey on trust in governments, corporations and global institutions, conducted by GlobeScan Incorporated, showed that trust in a range of institutions has dropped significantly in the U.S. since 2004 to levels just after 9/11. The poll also reveals that public trust in all national governments (except Russia) and the U.N. has fallen. In the same period, public trust in companies has eroded. Recently a report from Germany indicated that corporate giant Deutsche Telekom spied on thousands of its own employees’ and Directors’ phone messages in an attempt to identify the source of leaks to the media.
  • According to a FedEx poll, 40% of people say they have little or no trust in corporate America, with 47% feeling that way about Fortune 500 CEOs. The same survey asked respondents to identify a single phrase from a list that would engender the most trust in a company. They chose “ethical business practices,” with “sound moral compass,” coming a close second.
  • Only a third of Americans now trust their government “to do what is right”—a decline of 14 percentage points from last year, according to a new report by the communications marketing firm Edelman. Forty-two percent trust the media, relative to 47 percent a year ago. Trust in business and non-governmental organizations, while somewhat higher than trust in government and the media, decreased by 10 and nine percentage points, respectively. Edelman, which for 18 years has been asking people around the world about their level of trust in various institutions, has never before recorded such steep drops in trust in the United States.
  • The Edelman survey, based on the opinions of over 33,000 people and conducted between Oct. 28 and Nov. 20 of last year, showed an even deeper lack of trust in U.S. institutions among the “informed public” – people who are college educated, earn above-average incomes and consume news regularly.
  • Among the countries surveyed, trust declined in the U.S. a whopping 23 points, putting the United States in last place among the 28 countries surveyed, below Russia and South Africa. In 2017 it ranked sixth.


The survey also showed that Americans’ trust in their own companies fell more steeply than in any other country. In contrast Switzerland and Canada registered the highest levels of trust in their homegrown companies.

“This is the first time that a massive drop in trust has not been linked to a pressing economic issue or catastrophe like [Japan’s 2011] Fukushima nuclear disaster,” Richard Edelman, the head of the firm, noted in announcing the findings. “In fact, it’s the ultimate irony that it’s happening at a time of prosperity, with the stock market and employment rates in the U.S. at record highs.”

“The root cause of this fall,” he added—just days after polling revealed that Americans’ definition of “fake news” depends as much on their politics as the accuracy of the news, and a Republican senator condemned the American president’s Stalinesque attacks on the press and “evidence-based truth,” and a leading think tank warned that America was suffering from “truth decay” as a result of political polarization and social media—is a “lack of objective facts and rational discourse.”



It used to be that what Edelman labels the “informed public”—those aged 25 to 64 who have a college degree, regularly consume news, and are in the top 25 percent of household income for their age group—placed far greater trust in institutions than the U.S. public as a whole. This year, however, the gap all but vanished, with trust in government in particular plummeting 30 percentage points among the informed public. America is now home to the least-trusting informed public of the 28 countries that the firm surveyed, right below South Africa. Distrust is growing most among younger, high-income Americans.

Percent Change in Trust in Government, Media, Business, and NGOs, 2017 — 2018 Source: 2018 EDELMAN TRUST BAROMETER


But whereas trust is falling in the United States and a number of other countries with tumultuous politics at the moment, including South Africa, Italy, and Brazil, it’s actually increasing elsewhere, most prominently in China. Eighty-four percent of Chinese respondents said they trusted government—levels the United States hasn’t seen since the early Johnson administration—and 71 percent said they trusted the media. The world’s two most powerful countries, one democratic and the other authoritarian, are moving in opposite directions. In each case, the trajectory is largely being determined by people’s views of government.

When Richard Edelman was asked why survey participants tended to trust technology companies much more than government, he reasoned that it was because those companies “have products that perform for you every day—whether it’s your cell phone or your airline.” Chinese respondents might have been making a similar statement about the government’s performance.

“There’s a lot of chaos and uncertainty in the world, and when there is chaos and uncertainty in the world centralized, authoritative power tends to do better,” Bersoff added. (It’s worth noting that other countries with high trust levels in the report range politically from democratic India to more-or-less democratic Indonesia and Singapore to the undemocratic United Arab Emirates.)

Why, though, is trust eroding in the United States in the absence of an economic crisis or other kind of catastrophe? What’s changed, according to the Edelman report, is that it’s gotten much harder to discern what is and isn’t true—where the boundaries are between fact, opinion, and misinformation.

“The lifeblood of democracy is a common understanding of the facts and information that we can then use as a basis for negotiation and for compromise,” said Bersoff. “When that goes away, the whole foundation of democracy gets shaken.”

“This is a global, not an American issue,” Edelman says “And it’s undermining confidence in all the other institutions because if you don’t have an agreed set of facts, then it’s really hard to judge whether the prime minister is good or bad, or a company is good or bad.” A recent Pew Research Center poll, in fact, found across dozens of countries that satisfaction with the news media was typically highest in countries where trust in government and positive views of the economy were highest, though it didn’t investigate how these factors were related to one another.

America actually falls in the middle of surveyed countries in terms of trust in the media, which emerges from the Edelman poll as the least-trusted institution globally of the four under consideration. (In the United States, the firm finds, Donald Trump voters are over two times more likely than Hillary Clinton voters to distrust the media.) Nearly 70 percent of respondents globally were concerned about “fake news” being used as a weapon and 63 percent said they weren’t sure how to tell good journalism from rumor or falsehoods. Most respondents agreed that the media was too focused on attracting large audiences, breaking news, and supporting a particular political ideology rather than informing the public with accurate reporting. While trust in journalism actually increased a bit in Edelman’s survey this year, trust in search and social-media platforms dipped.

In last year’s survey, the perspective that many respondents expressed was “‘I’m not sure about the future of my job because of robots or globalization. I’m not sure about my community anymore because there are a lot of new people coming in. I’m not sure about my economic future; in fact, it looks fairly dim because I’m downwardly mobile.”  These sentiments found expression in the success of populist politicians in the United States and Europe, who promised a return to past certainties.

 Nearly seven in 10 respondents worry about fake news and false information being used as a weapon.

Exactly half of those surveyed indicate that they interact with mainstream media less than once a week, while 25 percent said they read no media at all because it is too upsetting. And the majority of respondents believe that news organizations are overly focused on attracting large audiences (66 percent), breaking news (65 percent) and politics (59 percent).


Trust in Politics


As the Edelman survey has shown, trust in political institutions and political leaders is at an all-time low, no doubt in part to:

  • Corruption criminal acts.
  • A lack of transparency and honesty.
  • The undue influence of donor money influencing government policies.
  • The low quality of many political candidates.
  • Deliberate misinformation and dishonesty by political leaders.
  • Manipulation of the structures of the electoral system (eg: gerrymandering).
  • A lack of accountability for political leaders who are dishonest/corrupt/criminal.


Trust in Business


Technology (75 percent) remains the most trusted industry sector followed by Education (70 percent), professional services (68 percent) and transportation (67 percent). Financial services (54 percent) was once again the least trusted sector along with consumer packaged goods (60 percent) and automotive (62 percent).

Companies headquartered in Canada (68 percent), Switzerland (66 percent), Sweden (65 percent) and Australia (63 percent) are most trusted. The least trusted country brands are Mexico (32 percent), India (32 percent), Brazil (34 percent) and China (36 percent). Trust in brand U.S. (50 percent) dropped five points, the biggest decline of the countries surveyed.

2017 saw CEO credibility rise sharply by seven points to 44 percent after a number of high-profile business leaders voiced their positions on the issues of the day. Nearly two-thirds of respondents say they want CEOs to take the lead on policy change instead of waiting for government, which now ranks significantly below business in trust in 20 markets. This show of faith comes with new expectations; building trust (69 percent) is now the No. 1 job for CEOs, surpassing producing high-quality products and services (68 percent).

The Leadership Quarterly reports that a study found many bosses today are seen as dishonest. The report cited that 39% of those surveyed said their supervisors had failed to keep promises; 37% said their supervisors had failed to give credit when due; and 33% said their supervisors had blamed others to cover up mistakes or to minimize embarrassment. The authors of the report, from Florida State University, posed the question of whether these kinds of behavior are a reflection of an increasing “it’s all about me” society and an increasing lack of honesty and trust.

Bronwyn Fryer, writing on the issue of trust, in the Harvard Business Review, says that “the business world is shaking like a Wittenberg church door. And no wonder: we’re about to undergo a Reformation. Our faith is shaken to the core; our sense of normality unhinged. Wall Street lies in metaphorical rubble. The greatest banker who ever lived, Alan Greenspan, says he misunderstood market mechanics. Jack Welch says focusing on share price was a dumb idea. The future of capitalism itself is in question.”

In their book, The Trusted Leader, Robert Galford and Anne Siebold Drapeau identify three categories of trust within an organization and emphasize how a loss of trust by employees for their leaders can weaken and even destroy an organization.

Stephen M.R. Covey, in his best selling book, The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything argues that trust everywhere is in decline, and cites a 2004 estimate that the act of complying with U.S. Federal rules and regulations along “put in place essentially due to a lack of trust-at $1.1 trillion,” and points to a study by the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners which estimated that the average American company lost 6% of its annual revenue to fraudulent activity. In contrast, a Watson Wyatt study showed that high trust companies outperform low trust companies by nearly 300%.

Covey argues that the first job of any leader is to inspire trust born of character and competence. Character includes integrity, motive and intent. He cites the high trust business deal between Warren Buffet and his company Berkshire, which acquired McLane Distribution for $23 billion from Walmart, a deal that was completed in a two hour meeting and a handshake with all the paperwork completed within a month.

Dennis and Michelle Reina, authors of Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace, have developed a model of trust, which provides an organizational roadmap describing what they term “transaction trust,” based on the key elements of honesty, transparency, admission of mistakes and communicating with good purpose.

Kurt Dirks, a professor of organizational behavior at Olin University has researched the issue of trust, and published his findings as In the Face of Adversity: Trust in Leaders is Essential for Performance. He shows how trust increases productivity. Dirks concludes that “people will forgive a leader who compromises their trust because of a lapse of competence, but not with lapses of integrity.” He says that to demonstrate integrity, leaders must do what they say they will do; live up to the values and beliefs they aspire; and be true to themselves.

Kiernan O’Hara, author of Trust: From Socrates to Spin, argues that there is clear evidence trust is declining across Western economies, the cause of which he describes as the “expectation gap.” This gap is described as the result of people expecting that more that is actually feasible or desirable, which results in a loss of trust when the expectations can’t be met.

It’s very apparent that the ability to restore, establish, and grow trust among stakeholders in our organizations an institutions is the critical challenge now facing us today. We desperately need the torch to be picked up by courageous leaders and sustained by all of us in our daily lives.


The Distrust of the Educated, Experts and Science


Gleb Tsipursky wrote an excellent article in the Scientific American, describing how Americans have lost trust in educated experts and science in recent years.

He says that “illnesses and deaths are one among many terrible consequences of the crisis of trust suffered by our institutions in recent years. While headlines focus on declining trust in the media and the government, science and academia are not immune to this crisis of confidence, and the results can be deadly.” For example, dozens of infants and children in Romania died recently in a major measles outbreak, as a result of prominent celebrities campaigning against vaccination. This trend parallels that of Europe as a whole, which suffered a 400 percent increase in measles cases from 2016 to 2017. Unvaccinated Americans traveling to the World Cup may well bring the disease back to the U.S.

Of course, we don’t need to go to Europe to catch measles. Kansas just experienced its worst outbreak in decades. Children and adults in a few unvaccinated families were key to this widespread outbreak. Just as in Romania, parents in the U.S. are fooled by the false claim that vaccines cause autism. This belief has spread widely across the U.S. and leads to a host of problems.

Measles was practically eliminated in the U.S. by 2000. However, in recent years outbreaks of measles have been on the rise, driven by parents failing to vaccinate their children in a number of communities. We should be especially concerned because our president has frequently expressed the false view that vaccines cause autism, and his administration has pushed against funding science-based policies at the Centers for Disease Control.

Tsipurskypoints out that in 2006, 41 percent of respondents in a nationwide poll expressed “a lot of confidence” in higher education. Less than 10 years later, in 2014, only 14 percent of those surveyed showed “a great deal of confidence” in academia.

What about science as distinct from academia? Polling shows that the number of people who believe that science has “made life more difficult” increased by 50 percent from 2009 to 2015. According to a 2017 survey, only 35 percent of respondents have “a lot” of trust in scientists; the number of people who do “not at all” trust scientists increased by over 50 percent from a similar poll conducted in December 2013.

This crumbling of trust in science and academia forms part of a broader pattern, what Tom Nichols called The Death of Expertise in his 2017 book. Growing numbers of people claim their personal opinions hold equal weight to the opinions of experts.

While we can all agree that we do not want people to get sick, what is the underlying basis for the idea that the opinions of experts—including scientists—deserve more trust than the average person in evaluating the truth of reality?

The term “expert” refers to someone who has extensive familiarity with a specific area, as shown by commonly recognized credentials such as a certification, an academic degree, publication of a book, years of experience in a field, or some other way that a reasonable person may recognize an “expert.” Experts are able to draw on their substantial body of knowledge and experience to provide an opinion, often expressed as “expert analysis.”

That doesn’t mean an expert opinion will always be right: it’s simply much more likely to be right than the opinion of a non-expert. The underlying principle here is probabilistic thinking, our ability to predict the truth of current and future reality based on limited information. Thus, a scientist studying autism would be much more likely to predict accurately the consequences of vaccinations than someone who has spent 10 hours googling “vaccines and autism” online.

This greater likelihood of experts being correct does not at all mean we should always defer to experts. First, research shows that experts do best in evaluating reality in environments that are relatively stable over time and thus predictable, and also when the experts have a chance to learn about the predictable aspects of this environment. Second, other research suggests that ideological biases can have a strongly negative impact on the ability of experts to make accurate evaluations. Third, material motivations can sway experts to conduct an analysis favorable to their financial sponsor.

However, while individual scientists may make mistakes, it is incredibly rare for the scientific consensus as a whole to be wrong. Scientists get rewarded in money and reputation for finding fault with statements about reality made by other scientists. Thus, for the large majority of them to agree on something—for there to be a scientific consensus—is a clear indicator that whatever they agree on reflects reality accurately.


The Influence of the Internet and Social Media


The rise of the internet and, more recently, social media is key to explaining the declining public confidence in expert opinion.

Before the internet, the information accessible to the general public about any given topic usually came from experts. For instance, scientific experts on autism were invited to talk on this topic on mainstream media, large publishers published books by the same experts, and they wrote encyclopedia articles on this topic.

The internet has enabled anyone to be a publisher of content, connecting people around the world with any and all sources of information. On the one hand, this freedom is empowering and liberating, with Wikipedia a great example of a highly curated and accurate source on the vast majority of subjects. On the other, anyone can publish a blog piece making false claims about links between vaccines and autism. If they are skilled at search engine optimization, or have money to invest in advertising, they can get their message spread widely.

Unfortunately,research shows that people lack the skills for differentiating misinformation from true information. This lack of skills has clear real-world effects: just consider that U.S. adults believed 75 percent of fake news stories about the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The more often omeone sees a piece of misinformation, the more likely they are to believe it.

Blogs with falsehoods are bad enough, but the rise of social media made the situation even worse. Most people re-share news stories without reading the actual article, judging the quality of the story by the headline and image alone. No wonder that research indicates that misinformation spreads as much as 10 times faster and further on social media than true information. After all, the creator of a fake news item is free to devise the most appealing headline and image, while credible sources of information have to stick to factual headlines and images.

Before the internet, we got our information from sources such as mainstream media and encyclopedias, which curated the information for us to ensure it came from experts, minimizing the problem of confirmation bias. Now, the lack of curation means thinking errors are causing us to choose information that fits our intuitions and preferences, as opposed to the facts. Moreover, some unscrupulous foreign actors—such as the Russian government—and domestic politicians use misinformation as a tool to influence public discourse and public policy.

The large gaps between what scientists and the public believe about issues such as climate change, evolution, GMOs, and vaccination exemplify the problems caused by misinformation and lack of trust in science. Such mistrust results in great harm to our society, from outbreaks of preventable diseases to highly-damaging public policies.


What Can Be Done?


In both politics and business, consumers, voters and the media must demand and take action to insist leaders of those institutions are honest, transparent and trustworthy. This includes holding those individuals and institutions accountable for corruption, lying and false information.  It also means holding up leadership to higher standards and recruiting and promoting only those individuals who demonstrate integrity and morality.

 Fortunately, there are proactive steps Americans can take to address the crisis of trust in science and academia.

For example, we can uplift the role of science in our society. The March for Science movementis a great example of this effort. First held on Earth Day in 2017 and repeated in 2018, this effort involves people rallying in the streets to celebrate science and push for evidence-based policies. Another example is the Scholars Strategy Network, an effort to support scholars in popularizing their research for a broad audience and connecting scholars to policy makers.

We can also fight the scourge of misinformation. Many world governments are taking steps to combat falsehoods. While the U.S. federal government has dropped the ball on this problem, a number of states passed bipartisan efforts promoting media literacy. Likewise, many non-governmental groups are pursuing a variety of efforts to fight misinformation.

The Pro-Truth Pledge combines the struggle against misinformation with science advocacy. Founded by a group of behavioral science experts and concerned citizens, the pledge calls on public figures, organizations, and private citizens to commit to 12 behaviors listed on the pledge Web site that research inbehavioral science show correlate with truthfulness. Signers are held accountable through a crowdsourced reporting and evaluation mechanism while getting reputational rewards because of their commitment. The scientific consensus serves as a key measure of credibility, and the pledge encourages pledge-takers to recognize the opinions of experts as more likely to be true when the facts are disputed.

More than 500 politicians have taken the pledge. Two research studies at Ohio State University have demonstrated with a strong statistical significance the effectiveness of the pledge in changing the behavior of pledge-takers to be more truthful. Thus, taking the pledge yourself and encouraging people you know and your elected representatives to take the pledge is an easy action to both fight misinformation and promote science.

Restoring trust in American institutions and leaders will not be an easy task, but one that may determine the quality of life that Americans now, and future generations will lead.


Copyright: Neither this article or a portion thereof may be reproduced in any print or media format without the express permission of the author.

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