Comment Of The Day: Public Confidence And Trust (2): Observations On Gallup’s Confidence In Institutions Poll

After Charles Green‘s recent  Comment of the Day on the post, Public Confidence And Trust (1): Observations On Gallup’s Trust In Occupations Poll, I was pretty sure that there would be an encore when I posted Part 2, an overview of the Gallup poll on public trust and confidence in American institutions. Charlie didn’t disappoint, so here is his Comment of the Day on the post, Public Confidence And Trust (2): Observations On Gallup’s Confidence In Institutions Poll:

…I agree with you that this stuff is as mission-critical as anything.

As you know, my life’s work is studying trust, and while I focus on interpersonal trust, you can’t ignore the systemic institutional issues either. In fact, they are connected.

In fact, I agree with your fundamental point that the cure for what ails our institutions must lie in personal behaviors, personal relationships, personal ethics.

Without taking anything away from that fundamental and massive agreement, let me suggest two tweaks to the issue as you have presented it.

The first is that this is NOT simply a US phenomenon. I recommend even more sobering reading from the Edelman Trust Barometer, a study that has been ongoing for over a decade. See the 2017 version here:

That survey covers about 18 western countries: fully half of them report the level of distrust in institutions – business, communications, NGOs, CEOs, etc. – not materially different from what we see in the US.

Second, I want to underscore the counter-argument to your (and my) claim that the answer lies in individual responsibility. Enormous numbers of people and perspectives in effect argue for the opposite – impersonal social engineering.

This kind of argument is found in business in the form of incentives, performance metrics, and a “compliance” approach to ethics. None of it is intended as anti-person responsibility, but I believe it surely has that effect.

I believe it is also found in the global attraction of populism (aka tribalism), which you can also argue is the result of slowed economic growth – but that argument also takes away agency of the individual.

Academia has to take some blame as well, for having focused solely on explaining how things work, without ever offering the antidote, which is an ethical response. When neuropsychologists preach about “how” we come to make moral judgments, they have managed to strip all the ethics out of the explanation, leaving only atoms. It is, i assure you, very bad metaphysics, and it is endemic.

And so on. Apologies for the length, but to put it in one sentence: Yes, the times they do suck, and the answer lies not in social engineering (or fragmented social units), but in a renaissance of interpersonal responsibility.


14 thoughts on “Comment Of The Day: Public Confidence And Trust (2): Observations On Gallup’s Confidence In Institutions Poll

  1. Charles,
    What do you think of the idea that the growing lack of trust is directly related to information overload?

    There are consequences to everything; is a consequence to information overload in our modern world a lack of trust? I’m wondering if trust is inversely proportional to the constantly increasing rate of easy access to information, too bad they weren’t taking these surveys 200 years ago.

    A two hundred years ago there was a tube of toothpaste on the shelf at the store, either that product met your needs or it didn’t; your buddy uses it and that’s good enough for you. Today you can look up the company that made the toothpaste on the internet, find out that the CEO was an adulterer that ended up married to his pregnant now unemployed secretary, 5% of his employees make minimum wage, and the company has been sued five times for some kind of liability, and attack dogs in social media says the company has devil worshiping parties every Friday night.

    Ignorance truly is bliss.

    Ignorance has consequences.

    There are also consequences to knowledge.

    Continued in-your-face negativity about bad companies, bad people, bad air you breathe, bad water you drink, bad dirt you eat, etc, etc, these things can’t possibly be promoting trust. Think about that for a couple of minutes.

    • Zoltar, thanks for the kind words.

      And yes, I agree with you. The plethora of information has a lot of consequences, a great many of them bad.

      To the list and examples you provided, I’d add that information overload also results in indecision from paralysis. It also, as many people have noted, results in small-group tribalism, as a far more effective strategy for coping with overload – we end up relying on others as an authority for making up our minds, in the face of the impossibly complex task of absorbing it all for ourselves.

      It all results in cynicism and social mistrust.

      • As a unexplored branch of this thread, I offer the proposal that knowing too much makes me ethically responsible for my choice, be it to use that brand of toothpaste or what charity to support.

        I try to investigate a company when: I heard a disturbing rumor, when I am considering supporting a possibly worthy cause, or considering a new product or innovation.

        Sometimes the numbers change my mind: Red Cross, for example, tells the IRS that they spent roughly 25% of their contributions on Administration. That is a bit high for my personal charity index, and so I gave to a ‘more lean’ organization instead. Other times the investigations lend positive results, like when I found out the rumors of problems with Magnolia Market were unfounded smears and could be disregarded. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and I find that there is no there, there.

        If I had found out that Magnolia WAS a sham, for instance, that knowledge means I cannot in good conscience support that business. Learning this makes me responsible for my actions, in a way that I was not before.

        Now, many times this information is false, or a partial truth. You have to be careful of sources and both sides of the story when you go down this path.

        There are times I do not take the time (for many reasons) to investigate these decisions: who has time to look up every vendor product found at WalMart? Unless it is brought to my attention, I tend to trust the business as a default. And ethically, this means I am innocent due to my ignorance.

        (As an aside, this is why my tax dollars should not support abortions on demand: I know the use of my money, and feel responsible for the deaths that money was used for)

        Which brings me back to my original thought: there is so much information available I have to be careful of my ethics and morals: if I feel the need to act I have to look even further to validate that there is an issue.

        This is a good and a bad thing, and certainly one that my grandfather did not have to deal with.

  2. I think that this conversation… partially… fails to see the forest for the trees.

    I’ve talked about the expectation gap between parents and reality concerning the relative safety of our children before; That is, despite our children having statistically never been safer, never been more likely to survive to adulthood, never been less likely to be killed, kidnapped, molested or abused… Parents are more fearful for the safety of their children than they’ve ever been. And parents really get their backs up when faced with someone pointing out that their expectation that strangers are going to harm their children is borderline neurotic. But I suppose I can’t blame them…

    I can’t blame them because if it bleeds, it leads. If it tugs on the old heartstrings, it’s front and center for days… And nothing bleeds redder than children. The grenade that blew open the dam on Syria’s migrant crisis wasn’t the boats full of people sinking in the Mediterranean Sea, it was the picture of the boy, dead, face down in the sand. To take a more domestic approach, every murder, molestation and abduction is front and center at least at some level of media, and the more horrifying the story, the wider the dissemination. Parents are blasted with story after story about how shitty a world we live in, despite the fact that they and their children have never been safer.This is the most glaring example of a media fueled expectation-reality gap I can think of.

    Take that idea to the conversation at hand… Are the professions we’re talking about less trustworthy now than they were in the 70’s? I just don’t think they are. I have the feeling that other than some glaring and obvious examples of professions that have debased themselves (media and politicians being top of that list), generally, professions are just as trustworthy as they ever were, but in this age of 24 hour news cycles, abundant information, and connectivity, we are more likely to learn when someone has behaved in an untrustworthy way, and once found out, that story has a wider circle of dissemination.

    What we have to look at is whether our expectations match up to reality, more specifically… Is the expectation gap closing or widening; That is, are our expectations being tempered by knowledge, which is moving our expectations more in line with reality, and this loss of trust is warranted, or are our expectations being corrupted by our environment, most importantly an incompetent, biased media driven by sensationalism and laziness to a point where we expect that professionals are less trustworthy than they actually are.

    • HT, you have put your finger on a serious issue here. Another Gallup poll tracks the disparity between violent crime and the perception of violent crime in the US over the past two decades.

      1. The actual INCIDENCE of violent crime has decreased
      2. The FEAR of violent crime, and the perception of its frequency, has increased.

      In other words, like you said, we are all seeing a bunch of trees that don’t resemble the real forest.

      It’s actually very hard to determine an objective measure of trustworthiness; it’s much easier to measure opinions, which Gallup does. Other than Trust Across America, as I mentioned elsewhere, there are no accepted metrics for trustworthiness itself (nor do I have one).

      We’re left with anecdotes and perceptions. For my part, what I see is:

      For the case that professions have gotten MORE trustworthy, I think we see fewer cases of fraud and malfeasance in investment banking, brokerage, law, accounting, and real estate. Some of this may be due to legislation, some due to professional guidelines and compliance enforcement, and some due to the publicity that has accompanied flagrant abusers.

      For the case that professions have gotten LESS trustworthy, I see far greater reliance on processes, metrics, purchasing departments, rules and regs than we used to: which means people use them as a copout for making responsible trust-based decisions. (My favorite recent example: condo association boards, it seems, have gotten way more nit-picky and “if we did it for you we’d have to do it for everyone” in recent years).

      The demise of the willingness to defer to processes, legal agreements and algorithms rather than make responsible decisions in management has been a contributor.

      • I didn’t mean to write:

        The demise of the willingness to defer to processes, legal agreements and algorithms rather than make responsible decisions in management has been a contributor.

        I meant to write:

        The increased willingness to defer to processes, legal agreements and algorithms rather than make responsible decisions in management has been a contributor.

      • A better addition to the base poll then, to me, would be:

        “Do you trust YOUR doctor” in addition to “Do you trust the profession of doctors”

        “Do you trust YOUR senator” in addition to “Do you trust the Senate”

        “Do you trust YOUR banker” in addition to “Do you trust bankers”

        Because though there is some effect from the body of professionals…trust of THE profession, is much less meaningful than trust of the particular professional you avail yourself of.

        • And additionally:

          “If you have so little trust in XX profession, has your trust so degraded that you no longer trust even a single XX professional, and so assume the responsibilities in your own life that XX professional would alleviate if you trusted them?”

        • Many of those surveys do indeed ask both questions, and guess what – almost all of us think that the XYZ profession is largely untrustworthy, but my own personal XYX professional is pretty much a good guy.

          That holds true for congress: we hate congress, but our own representative isn’t all that bad. Ditto for investment advisors and management consultants. I don’t know about lawyers, but suspect the same is true.

          The conclusion from all of that is that trust is personal; we may talk about ‘trusting’ FedEx, but it’s Joe the FedEx driver we really trust to leave something behind the door. (Recall Tip O’Neill’s proverb that ‘all politics is local.’ I think the same thing is true of trust).

          The implication from all that, in my view, is that we need to leverage personal relationships – we’ve been doing the opposite in recent years, relying on networks and facebook friends and crowdsourcing and regulations.

          The best way to a trust-based company is to create a company full of people who trust and are trusted.

  3. Thank you Jack for the double honor. I should probably shut up and quit now while I’m ahead, at least for a while. Much appreciated.

  4. We need to strengthen ‘individual responsibility/ ethics’ AND ‘interpersonal social engineering’. They are both important and work differently for different people at different times.

    The key question has the form : “Dad, why should I be ‘good’ and not steal from my brother? What’s in it for me with all this ‘goodness”?

    Answers in the first set include : ‘Because I tell you – Be Nice!’, ‘Because otherwise you’ll burn in Hell’ and ‘Do as you would be done by’ (the ‘Golden Rule’). To the super rational young son (I know nothing about daughters) they are all somewhat weak and risk provoking endless ‘but whys ….’.

    I need an alternative set, working directly on my son’s self interest. “What sort of environment do you want to live in? Do you fancy having to barricade your bedroom? And even more sneaky ….. “ Nice girls don’t like thieves and cheats” ( I hope that’s at least partially true.)

    We (most of us ) like living in safe, secure environments. It doesn’t take enormous intellect to work out that achieving this requires us either to be powerfully dominant ( so powerful we don’t have to fear being murdered in our beds) or to all be relatively nice, tolerant and caring of each other – hard though that might be.

    A third and more desperate response to such pressurising offspring might be “Ask your Mother”. Sadly I have very little confidence in “ Go on the internet and Google ‘ethics’.

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