Trust: Why Does It Matter? How Did We Lose It?

Social trust has been called the glue that holds a society together.  I would describe it as an indispensable lubricant of social life.   A society like ours could not get through the day unless most of its people had confidence that most other people will tell the truth and fulfill their promises, or commitments, or obligations.  When the other people -- and institutions -- that we interact with every day are what they claim to be, and do what they say they will do, life has a much higher degree of predictability and dependability.  

Trust -- and its twin sister truthfulness -- greatly reduces our potential risks in life and prevents a lot of anxiety and stress.    We do not need to hire a food taster when we go out to dinner.  We do not require the bus driver to show us his driver’s license.  When we order an item online, we can reasonably expect it will be delivered.  Nor do we require a friend, or a spouse, to take a daily oath of office.  That’s just a sampler.  And it certainly helps when the rule of law reinforces the social system by codifying what can be expected of others and providing “incentives” for people to act in good faith.

Over the years, the Pew Research Center has regularly surveyed Americans on the subject of trust.  They ask: “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people?”  There has been a significant decline over time in the number of positive responses.  In one recent iteration, some 35% of the respondents were rated as having high social trust and another 22% were moderately trustful, while some 38% were rated as having low social trust.   What people actually do can be very different from what they say to a pollster, of course.  But these results indicate that there is a wary predisposition and a high level of ambient public anxiety in our country, especially when people must confront some novel situation.  Caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) has, unfortunately, become a necessary modus operandi in our mendacious “free market” economy.   Indeed, Americans are very much more guarded with one another than, say, the Scandinavians, or the Canadians.  It’s also highly significant that our working-class citizens and minorities are far more distrustful on average than more affluent, college-educated whites.  Needless to say, they bear many more battle scars from how they are treated in this society. 

The level of trust in our government is, of course, far worse – a national scandal.  In 1958, some 75% of the respondents had high trust in government.  Now that figure, especially for our Congress, is under 20%. Winston Churchill famously declared that “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies."   In our politics, so it seems, the truth is so ugly that our politicians try to hide it with a bodyguard of lies.  Lying on an industrial scale has become routine in our politics.  Among the almost endless list of prevarications, some of the more notorious ones have borne the Presidential seal:  The lie that Lyndon Johnson used to get us into the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon’s lies about Watergate, Bill Clinton’s lies about Monica Lewinsky, George Bush’s lies about Iraq and “weapons of mass destruction.” And now we have a vicious, pathological, transparent liar in the White House. (The Washington Post a while back counted up an average of more than four lies a day.)

However, we still have a legal system in this country that can tell the difference and hold people accountable when crimes have been committed.  Indeed, it may after all be the rule of law that is the essential “glue” that holds this fractious (distrustful) democracy together.  It’s a proposition that may soon be tested once again.   



Peter Corning

Peter Corning is currently the Director of the Institute for the Study of Complex Systems in Seattle, Washington.  He was also a one-time science writer at Newsweek and a professor for many years in the Human Biology Program at Stanford University, along with holding a research appointment in Stanford’s Behavior Genetics Laboratory.  


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