Public Confidence And Trust (1): Observations On Gallup’s Trust In Occupations Poll

I’ve been following the Gallup organization’s yearly polls on public attitudes toward institutions and occupations for a long time. The results are in for 2017. I’ll discuss the ethics implication of the Gallup occupations poll first; Part 2 will cover the institutions.

The occupations poll tends to fluctuate more year to year, and is most interesting as viewed a competition. Who are most trusted and regarded as most honest? Who are least trusted? Nurses have been ranked #1 in public trust for 16 straight years. I guess this means not too many people watch “Nurse Jackie.” I assume the consistently high rating is because we tend to trust people we have to trust, thus confirmation bias, and because there haven’t been any major nursing scandals or “Angels of Death” in the news. As you will see from the chart, medical doctors are trusted much less. I think that’s the result of an illusion.

Only six professions rate as more than 50% “high” or “very high” for honesty and ethical standards: nurses, military officers, grade school teachers, medical doctors, police officers and pharmacists. The honesty rating of pharmacists dropped five points since 2016, however, and it an occupation that has sometimes finished right behind the nurses. Gallup guesses that the opioid crisis is to blame, and maybe that’s right, though I would think the doctors who prescribe the drugs are more to blame then the druggists who sell them.

Public views of the clergy have fallen like a Chinese space station. Before the Catholic Church child molesting scandal in 2001, the clergy was very trusted at the high 60% level. Now it is all the way down to 42%, though the total of high trust and average trust is still 85%. I think the film “Spotlight” hurt, as it should have.

Occupations that I would regard as having positive public trust include those whose high trust+average scores are higher than their low trust+average scores. That group, in addition to the occupations already named above, includes day care providers, judges, auto mechanics, nursing home operators and bankers. I think in all of these cases, the public has no real idea about how trustworthy these occupations really are. We just hope they are trustworthy, so again, we have a result that is polluted by wishful thinking. These people are entrusted with the welfare of our children, our cars, our parents and our money, plus the justice system. They better be trustworthy. Ignorance is bliss.

I confess amazement that Wells Fargo scandal didn’t result in lowered trust for bankers.

The remaining occupations are all, in trust terms, “under water,” more distrusted than well-trusted. The bottom of the barrel is Congress, and lobbyists, both of which have a net negative, with more of those surveyed having little trust than the total of the high and average trust number. Even car salesmen don’t get that foul a reaction. These ratings also are based on ignorance and combining apples and oranges to some extent. Americans tend to trust their members of Congress, but not anyone else’s. I’m not sure the average American really knows what lobbyists do; they just think it has something to do with bribery. Still, trust is all about perception.

The partisan divide also reflects factors other than pure trust:


Party Differences in Honesty and Ethics Ratings of Professions
% Very high/High ranked by Republican-Democratic Difference


Republican Independent Democrat Republican/Democratic difference
% % % %
Police officers 80 47 48 +32
Military officers 86 69 60 +26
Clergy 59 35 41 +18
Pharmacists 70 60 58 +12
Judges 54 38 42 +12
TV reporters 12 19 40 -28
Newspaper reporters 12 19 46 -34


Republicans are pro rule of law, pro national defense, and pro religion; Democrats not so much. These attitudes are pure bias in both directions. For how long has the Left disliked and distrusted the police and the military? It’s more than half a century  now. I am surprised that the ratings on the liberal side are as high as they are.

On the other end of the scale, Democrats are much more positive than Republicans about the news media, and why shouldn’t they be? The news media is largely working for them, and against Republicans. That still should be reason not to trust a profession supposedly dedicated to independence and objectivity, no matter where on the partisan spectrum you land. Would you truly “trust” a referee whom you knew was deliberately making his calls to benefit your team? That ref is clearly not honest; he’s just dishonest in a way that benefits you.

I know, I know. It’s too much to ask human beings to think that way. Writes Gallup:

…Democrats consider television and newspaper reporters much more honest than do Republicans, although Democrats’ honesty ratings for these professions fall below the 50% mark. This partisan divide reinforces recent Gallup findings that Democrats’ trust in the media is much higher than that of Republicans’. While Gallup did not measure attitudes about newspaper and television reporters last year, the very high/high reading for “journalists” showed a 15-point gap between Republicans and Democrats last year. Looking at “reporters” this year, that gap is roughly double what it was for “journalists” last year.

Well of course. Journalists have disgraced themselves and their profession in 2017. Apparently more Republicans have noticed.

Here is the whole chart:


Americans’ Ratings of Honesty and Ethical Standards in Professions
Please tell me how you would rate the honesty and ethical standards of people in these different fields — very high, high, average, low, or very low?


Very high/High Average Very low/Low
% % %
Nurses 82 16 2
Military officers 71 24 3
Grade school teachers 66 27 5
Medical doctors 65 31 4
Pharmacists 62 32 6
Police officers 56 32 12
Day care providers 46 43 7
Judges 43 41 15
Clergy 42 41 13
Auto mechanics 32 53 14
Nursing home operators 26 48 22
Bankers 25 54 21
Newspaper reporters 25 39 35
Local officeholders 24 53 20
TV reporters 23 39 37
State officeholders 19 47 33
Lawyers 18 53 28
Business executives 16 54 28
Advertising practitioners 12 49 34
Members of Congress 11 29 60
Car salespeople 10 48 39
Lobbyists 8 31 58
GALLUP, Dec. 4-11, 2017



38 thoughts on “Public Confidence And Trust (1): Observations On Gallup’s Trust In Occupations Poll

  1. You’re quite wrong about nurses: there is good reason they’re number one every year but 2002, and not just in the US. I’ll elaborate when back from dinner.

      • Thanks, great post by the way – lots of meat in here.

        Speaking just to the nursing angle: my work on trust has involved a diagnostic tool, the TQ (Trust Quotient), a self-assessment of the four components of trustworthiness in the Trust Equation:
        (Credibilty + Reliability + Intimacy) / Self-Orientation.

        70,000 people have taken it, and three results stand out above all others.

        First, women are more trustworthy than men – a finding confirmed by informal polls in 397 out of 400 groups I’ve presented in front of.

        Second, the most powerful factor of the four (defined as the highest coefficient in a regression equation) is Intimacy.

        Third, the bulk of women’s outscoring men is their higher score on the Intimacy factor (again, intuitively true to the vast majority of groups I ask).

        It’s in this context that I note the Gallup work (and other pollsters) finding of nursing at the top of the heap every year but 2002 (which was, not coincidentally, the year after 9/11 – and a year in which firemen, if only for that one year, took over the top spot.

        Nursing is an 89% female profession. I ask my audiences, “Which of the four trustworthiness factors do you think nurses most embody: credibility, reliability, intimacy, or low self-orientation?” Most pick intimacy (with low self-orientation a frequent second).

        Add ’em up: female, Intimacy, nursing – it’s a trifecta.

        Not only that, if the doctor says to you, “You’ll be up and walking in two weeks,” and the nurse whispers to you, “Honey, it’ll be a month” – who you gonna trust? The nurse, every time.

        Net net, the most powerful driver of trust is the sense that you can without risk share sensitive facts and feelings with the other – that’s how we define intimacy. This is of course anathema to a great deal of data-centric professions, including accountants, actuaries, lawyers (who along with politicians always anchor the bottom of these lists) – and doctors. The reason nurses out-score doctors on all these surveys is that doctors over-rate their expertise and under-rate bedside manner.

        Note this is not woo-woo left coast happy talk. The stock in trade of a good con artist is also Intimacy; they’re adept at forging that sense that you can share everything with them, and that they’re uniquely sharing everything with you. It’s just a fact about how humans are wired that Intimacy is such a driver – a fact systematically under-rated in this day and age of data, processes, systems, AI and robotics. But humans have evolved over eons, and we haven’t rewired our operating systems just because of a few decades of advance in cognitive fields.

        So, that’s why the nurses finding makes so much sense.

        • My doubts involving nurses, Charles (marvelous comment, by the way) comes from my study of research ethics in preparation for several programs (years ago) and the number of case studies in which nurses tended to over-deify doctors, not report malpractice and errors, and be vulnerable to enabling unethical and even illegal conduct. I also read a lot of interviews with nurses that backed this up. My focus was on unethical cultures in hospitals, and the role of doctors as ethics corrupters, with nurses being especially vulnerable.

          But I’m not sure that contradicts or invalidates anything you’re written. This is more of system problem than a nurse problem.

          • It’s an interesting question: will the increase of males decrease the trustworthy ratings of the nursing profession?
            I doubt it, because:
            a. Most male nurses are likely to rank pretty high on Intimacy themselves (it isn’t a guaranteed gender-trait, it varies across individuals)
            b. As the article notes, male nurses are disproportionately attracted to ER situations, a highly adrenaline-charged, transactional environment, which are more traditionally ‘male’ attributes. I don’t think that will change people’s view of the majority of nurses, since ER nursing is a small subset.

      • One other thought, on the Democrat/Republican divide regarding journalists. Note that the low ranking of journalists is not just in the US, and not just in 2017.
        Pretty much the same patterns apply in the UK, Australia, and Germany, and have for many years.

        Click to access 1403_vertrauen_in_berufe_downloadcharts_english_2.pdf

        The question of low ranking of journalists is not explained by US journalists leaning left in the last few years: it demands a far more systemic, international cause. Not sure how to phrase it, but the data isn’t as explainable by the recent anti-Trump bias in the US mainstream media – it’s a lot wider and deeper than that.

  2. I have low confidence in polls that measure perception among people with few if any encounters with the occupations in question. That is not to say I don’t believe that measure of perception just that perceptions can be skewed by merely one bad encounter or a well publicised negative event.

    It is unfortunate that many in occupations people tar those employed within them with the same brush based on zero or limited personal experience.

  3. I don’t really trust people whom I don’t know, so much as I look into their incentives and predict what they would be tempted to be dishonest about, and keep an eye on those factors to check for inconsistencies. As long as they don’t do anything incongruous in their business with me or mine, I can provisionally “trust” them for the purposes of business. I suppose that’s where the phrase “trust but verify” comes from.

    • Trust can only be earned but distrust is easily acquired. It is an axiom in business that when a customer has a great experience it is often unreported but an unhappy one will tell 100 others.

    • The polls in question are way, way beyond measuring “perceptions among people with few if any encounters with the occupation in question.” They’ve been showing the same results for decades now, and across multiple countries as well.
      The data is good.

      • Such logic validates the idea that because a shopkeepers data reflects that most of his/her shoplifters who are caught tend to be minorities therefore we should not trust minorities and watch them carefully in the store. I reject that logic.

        I do not discount the intimacy issue. However, intimacy is a function of trust. Those who are willing to share without considering the ramifications are prone to being exploited.

        These polls create a narrative for occupations that once established will perpetuate themselves irrespective of the behavior that occurs. Even if you have never purchashed a used car you go in believing you will be cheated because you are preconditioned to be on guard for the shifty salesman.

        Every person in every occupation can be either trustworty or not. Trust has to be built and that requires ongoing positive interactions.

        • Chris, you make several interesting points.

          One is that we all have to make distinctions between averages (aka stereotypes) and particulars (aka individual people). The ability to see averages while acting on the individual in front of us is what makes us ethically powerful, vs. ethically weak. I also reject the logic you suggest of the shopkeeper: a shopkeeper who succumbs to that faulty logic is subpar ethically, I would suggest, if he or she lets his stereotypes affect his actions. On the other hand, being ethical doesn’t mean you have to reject valid sociological observations to be careful.

          You suggest “intimacy is a function of trust.” In my work, I’ve suggested the reverse, that trust is a function of intimacy. That’s largely a definitional issue, and by most definitions, it’s fair to say there is overlap, and causality flows both ways.

    • EC, the “trust but verify” phrase (from Reagan, via an old Russian proverb) is a source of much misunderstanding.

      First, note it’s Russian: one of the lowest-trust countries in the world (as measured repeatedly by various researchers, Francis Fukuyama for one).

      Second, it’s almost an oxymoron: If you have to verify, it ISN’T trust at all. Trusting someone means you don’t have to verify – you are willing to skip over standard vetting procedures BECAUSE you trust them.

      So the phrase is really a cynical phrase from a cynical culture which amounts to saying, “Don’t trust anyone.” You can see an American variation on this in any small shop in the sign behind the cash register, “In God we trust, all others pay cash.”

  4. It would be interesting to see how well the (Republican – Democrat) trust score of professions correlates with the Republican/Democrat composition of professions. I’ll try doing that in a little while.

    • It would indeed: note that lawyers, politicians and used car salesmen are typically at the bottom of these lists, while nurses are at the top. Care to guess political affiliations in general of those professions?

  5. I worked very hard to qualify as an ‘xyzist’ (initially in the UK finance industry in the 1970s) and the profession has served me very well, across much of the world. Part of the reason why I could earn big bucks was that I was trusted. My employer needed my sign off. The head regulator was generally a qualified ‘xyzist’ too. No Board would dare go far without support from a qualified ‘xyzist’.

    The professional body (The Institute of ….) was strong, controlling entry (with hard exams), and policing behaviour with professional standards, codes of conduct and a disciplinary system. The profession largely wrote the rules and regulations for the industry. We always maintained we were acting in the ‘public interest’. At least superficially, we took our version of ‘noblesse oblige’ very seriously.

    We, of course, weren’t the only elite and cosy profession, and in times of stress we could join together with others (lawyers, accountants, elite civil servants etc.) to present a united front against ‘unsound’ proposals.

    That cosy world has now largely disintegrated, and perhaps it deserved to. Margaret Thatcher viewed the professions with particular suspicion as being self serving and in restraint of trade. The tide in academia has been towards open competition and ‘freedom with disclosure’, and quite unsupportive of unaccountable elites (largely male and similarly educated) setting the rules.

    The idea (from academia, Milton Friedman et al), was that a lightly regulated ‘free market’, with free and ample availability of information, would bring better decision making and greater efficiency.

    In my time, qualified ‘xyzists’ weren’t good and trustworthy primarily because they were naturally ‘good’ (although some undoubtedly were). It was in their interests, and the interests of the profession, that they maintained their reputation for ‘goodness’, and were therefore ‘trusted’, and could charge higher fees.

    As ordinary consumers we are now on our own, and we should not trust anyone or any body unless we can understand why it is in their interests to maintain trustworthiness.

    I don’t have any confidence that being harangued by Jack and others about ‘values’ will influence journalists, unless this hits their employers’ profits and their own incomes.

    In times of fast changing technology there will be new ways to deceive and trick. I have confidence that the general population learns fairly fast, but it can hurt. Surely none of us will any longer unquestioningly accept anything we see on facebook? It is conceivable (perhaps unlikely) that any (or all) of you EA bloggers are ‘Russians’ or generated by some fiendish bot? If any of you wanted money I suppose I’d have to check. (How …?)

    I don’t see in the near future any significant revival of ‘trusted bodies’, be they established in church, State, academia, professions, unions, associations or societies. The logical alternative of a heavily policed ‘rules based’ system won’t work on a global basis without effective global governance; and that isn’t on the horizon either.

    Any conclusions as to where we are heading are unclear but seem generally depressing. We will be less trusting of each other and more suspicious. Our big systems, countries, international bodies etc. will fragment. There will be more conflict. The only bright spot : maybe there will be a new appreciation of smaller groups – families, communities, neighbourhoods? Maybe with an optimistic squint I can see that coming in my childrens’ generation. I hope so.

  6. Interesting that there isn’t a ranking in this poll for anything in the tech world, yet you’ve got a fresh COTD on the ethical failures of the tech world.

    • The Gallup poll Jack cited is a poll of occupations or professions – not of industries. Tech is an industry, not an occupation, so nothing surprising about its absence.

      For the same reason, the poll includes “business executives” but not “bankers.”

      You’re looking for a different kind of poll. The closest thing I know is a very strong 7-year profile of trustworthiness for all publicly-traded companies (and therefore industries) in the US. You can find it at Trust Across America, under their FACTS model.

      • There are professions that align into industries. I also looked for “engineers” “programmers”, heck even “scientists” and there is bupkus.

        • There are indeed professions that align into industries, like lawyers, pharmacists and advertising execs, all of which are included here.

          I don’t think that’s the case with programmers or “scientists” or engineers – they all cross industries – though it’s a good question why they didn’t include those cases as professions in their list. Gallup usually has good reasons for things they do, but I don’t know what they are in this case.

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