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.
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 is directly connected to relationships among people. According to some scientists, 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. Other research shows Some trust can be altered by the application of oxytocin.
When it comes to the relationship between people and technology, the attribution of trust is a matter of dispute, some arguing that humans may have an instinctive distrust of technology. Experts are examining how the rapid progress of technology has impacted trust. In the social sciences the degree to which one party trusts another is a “measure of belief in the honesty, fairness, or benevolence of another 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 viewed as reliability in transactions. In all these instances, trust is a heuristic decision rule, allowing people to deal with situations without resorting to considerable effort in rational reasoning.
A person’s natural tendency to trust others can be considered a personality trait. It has been argued by some 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 can also be seen as integral to the concept of social influence: It is easier to influence or persuade someone who is trusting. Trust is increasingly adopted to predict acceptance of behaviors by others, institutions (e.g. government agencies) and objects such as machines.There are three different forms of trust:
- Trust is being vulnerable to someone even when they are trustworthy.
- Trustworthiness as the characteristics or behaviors of as person that inspire positive expectations in another person;
- Trust as being able to rely on people.
Once trust is lost, by violation of one of these three determinants, it is hard to regain. As a result, there is clear asymmetry in the building versus destruction of trust– being and acting trustworthy is the only sure way to maintain a trust level with others.
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 distributing false information and lies.
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.
- As reported in The Atlantic, 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 reportby 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, 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—a “lack of objective facts and rational discourse.”
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—used to place far greater trust in American than the general public. This year, however, Edelman shows, the gap has all but vanished, with trust in government in particular plummeting 30 percentage points among the informed public. According to the research, America is now home to the least-trusting informed public of the 28 countries that the firm surveyed, right below South Africa.
Percent Change in Trust in Government, Media, Business, and NGOs, 2017 — 2018 Source: 2018 EDELMAN TRUST BAROMETER
Whereas trust is declining in the United States and a number of other countries 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. The world’s two most powerful countries, the democratic U.S. and authoritarian China, are moving in opposite directions. In each case, the trajectory is largely being determined by people’s views of government.
“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 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, misinformation and deliberate lies.Nearly seven in 10 respondents worry about fake news and false information being used as a weapon. The truth becomes the victim.
“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.”
Trust in Politics
The Edelman survey shows Americans’ trust in political institutions and political leaders are at an all-time low, which can be attributed to:
- Corruption and other 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).
According to Edelman, 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 organizationalroadmap 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
Anti-intellectualism and Anti-Elitism
In an article in the New York Times, Beverly Gagesays “As an adjective, the word “elite” still conveys something positive, even aspirational: elite athlete, elite model, elite travel services….But as a noun, embodied by actual living people, it has become one of the nastiest epithets in American politics.” But about half a century ago, the conservative movement set out to claim anti-elite politics as its own. That meant redefining the term away from class and toward culture, where the “elite” could be identified by its liberal ideas, coastal real estate and highbrow consumer preferences.”
Tom Nichols, writing in Politico, contends “ In the far less grand homes of ordinary American families, knowledge of every kind is also under attack. Parents argue with their child’s doctor over the safety of vaccines. Famous athletes speculate that the world might actually be flat. College administrators ponder dropping algebra from the curriculum because students keep failing it. This is all immensely dangerous, not only to the well-being of individual citizens, but to the survival of the United States as a republic.”
Nichols goes on to say, “A significant number of laypeople now believe, for no reason but self-affirmation, that they know better than experts in almost every field. They have come to this conclusion after being assured by infotainment personalities in increasingly segmented media that popular views, no matter how nutty, are virtuous and right, and mesmerized by an internet that tells them exactly what they want to hear, no matter how ridiculous the question.”
In my article, “Anti-intellectualism and the Dumbing Down of America,” I argued, “There is a growing and disturbing trend of anti-intellectual elitism in American culture. It’s the dismissal of science, the arts, and humanities and their replacement by entertainment, self-righteousness, ignorance, and deliberate gullibility.”
The herd mentality has taken over online; the anti-intellectuals become the metaphorical equivalent of an angry lynch mob when anyone either challenges one of the mob beliefs or posts anything outside the mob’s self-limiting set of values. This in part is due to the online universe that “skews young, educated and attentive to fashions.” Fashion, entertainment, spectacle, voyeurism – we’re directed towards trivia, towards the inconsequential, towards unquestioning and blatant consumerism. This results in intellectual complacency. People accept withquestioning, believe without weighing the choices, join the pack because in a culture where convenience rules, real individualism is too hard work. Thinking takes too much time: it gets in the way of the immediacy of the online experience.
Reality TV and pop culture presented in magazines and online sites claim to provide important information about the importance of The Housewives of [you name the city] that can somehow enrich our lives. After all, how else can one explain the insipid and pointless stories tout divorces, cheating and weight gain? How else can we explain how the Kardashians, or Paris Hilton are known for being famous for being famous without actually contributing anything worth discussion. The artificial events of their lives become the mainstay of populist media to distract people from the real issues and concerns facing us.
A new Pew Research Center poll revealed that there is one U.S. institution perceived through a larger partisan divide than even the media: It’s college.For the first time, a majority of Republicans think that colleges and universities have a negative impact on the country. Fifty-eight percent say that colleges “are having a negative effect on the way things are going in the country,” according to Pew. In other words, the Wall Street banks are more popular with Republican voters than Stanford, Harvard or any reputable state university.
The Distrust of Scientific Experts
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, Tsipursky writes. 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. President Trump 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.
Tsipursky points 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 scientific experts and research and 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. This has been shown to be especially true when it comes to the issue of climate change.
Expert opinions are not always right: it’s simply much more likely to be right than the opinion of a non-expert. 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.
The Influence of the Internet and Social Media
Tsipursky, in his article, describes how, before the internet, the information accessible to the general public about any given topic usually came from experts. 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, On the other, anyone can publish a blog piece making false claims about links between vaccines and autism, or challenging the overwhelming evidence for climate change. If they are skilled at search engine optimization, or have money to invest in advertising, they can get their message spread widely.
However, research shows that the average person lacks the skills for differentiating misinformation from true information. For example, U.S. adults believed 75 percent of fake news stories about the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The more often someone sees a piece of misinformation, the more likely they are to believe it.
Add to that the fact that 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.
Tsipurskycontends that 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.
Tsipursky describes proactive steps Americans can take to address the lack of trust in experts.
For example, the March for Science movement is 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 he cites is the Scholars Strategy Network, an effort to support scholars in popularizing their research for a broad audience and connecting scholars to policy makers.
Many governments around the world are taking steps to combat falsehoods, unfortunately, actions not sharedby the U.S. federal government. Similarly, many non-governmental groups are pursuing a variety of efforts to fight misinformation.
Tsipursky also cites the Pro-Truth Pledge which 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.
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.
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