In a World of Crisis, Who Do You Trust?

New research shows our trust in the institutions that protect us is at stake.

Posted Sep 07, 2020

When the world is being rocked by multiple social crises, who do you trust?

Do you trust the government, police, science, business, or media to help protect you and get us out of the current debacles?

Globally and domestically, researchers have been examining our trust in institutions during the pandemic, and the results are mixed in ways that bear consideration.  

Surprisingly, a recent global online study conducted in Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Japan, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, S. Korea, the U.K., and the U.S., found that global trust was at an all-time high. A U.S. survey found a 90% endorsement that “we’re all in it together,” compared with 63%  in 2018.

Yet these studies and others have also found multiple important gaps in trust.

The informed public is far more trusting than others and a majority worry about the spread of disinformation regarding COVID.

Trust in experts (doctors, scientists, national health officials, the WHO) has decreased.

There is widespread concern over social inequities driving disparities in the impact of COVID on persons of color.

The U.S. has major partisan political differences with Democrats showing far less trust in the government and media than Republicans, including concerning COVID.

In the U.S., in the wake of numerous atrocious police killings, studies have documented racial disparities in trusting the police: 33% of Black Americans trust the police, compared with 77% of White Americans.  

Are these mixed findings about social trust cause for pessimism or optimism?  In a recent online discussion, New York University’s Jonathan Haidt expressed hope that Americans, exhausted and disgusted by polarization and dysfunction, will start demanding different qualities from their institutions and leaders.

In the same discussion, The New York Times’ David Brooks expressed pessimism over the bottoming out of trust in institutions, noting that universities, which are supposed to be a space for more balanced scholarly analysis, often descend into polarizations, as bad or worse than elsewhere in society.  

One of the most consequential acts that Americans will make regarding social trust is at the ballot box.  The U.S. has never had a President like Trump, who relentlessly pours fuel on the culture war fires, tells outrageous lies, creates chaos, and sows distrust in the very institutions he is responsible for leading.  When citizens vote for politicians who endorse distrust in institutions, nobody should be surprised when those leaders lack commitment or competency to maintain them.  

As consequential as elections are, Kristin Lord of IREX writes how the work of repairing weakened social trust needs to occur across society at many levels, from communities on up. Some strategies for repairing weakened trust seem particularly urgent, here tailored for the pandemic:  1) improving the effectiveness of our institutions in protecting communities from public health threats;  2) developing and choosing diverse leaders who are committed to the greater good and theories of change based on scientific evidence;  3) engaging citizens in problem-solving and building community resilience to disasters.

All over the world, people understandably want leaders and institutions to effectively manage COVID and other imminent health and environmental threats.  Yet as we strive for answers to today’s pressing problems, let’s keep in mind we are also making choices that will define the level and characteristics of our trust in the institutions we need to protect us tomorrow.  

Now is the time for all of us to ask, what do you want your trust legacy to be?