Thomas J. Leeper

Thomas J. Leeper PhD


In Nothing We Trust

Why don’t Americans trust anything anymore?

Posted Jul 15, 2012

Several reports from Gallup released over the past week made for exciting headlines. The poll reported that trust in religion, television news, Congress, public schools, and banks had hit historic lows. What has happened to Americans’ trust in anything?

While some might be quick to infer meaningful explanations for declining support in each of these institutions—that television has become too uncivilized or Congress to ineffective or public schools too expensive—such a summary is probably inadequate. 

Politico seems to have gotten the story right by finding the key quote from Gallup’s own reporting: “the declining confidence seems to be part of a broader pattern, rather than a product of isolated issues facing individual institutions. Once Americans begin to feel better about the way things are going in the United States, some of their lost confidence in the country's major institutions will likely be restored.”

Indeed, declining trust in seemingly everything appears at initial glance to be directly related to the public’s low satisfaction with how things are going in the country (with satisfaction hovering around 20%).

But this, too, is an incomplete story. Satisfaction is down only moderately since 2009 and up from where it was in early 2009—the pattern of decline is inconsistent with declining trust. Trust in various public and private institutions may be somewhat related to general satisfaction with the state of the nation, but other factors must be in play.

One prominent explanation for declining trust comes from Harvard Kennedy School of Government Professor Robert Putnam, in the book Bowling Alone. In it Putnam argues that American society has a fundamental problem related to a lack of social connectedness and informal associations—what he calls “social capital”—that strengthen societies. With the decline of these informal associations, Putnam suggests that Americans lose trust in one another; it is only a simple leap from that declining trust in one another to falling confidence in the institutions we all share.

But Putnam’s argument is not immune to critique. We may have fewer bowling leagues in the 21st century than we did in the 1960s, but that could just as easily be due to declining interest in bowling as due to a fundamental breakdown of American social structure. And, more problematic, the decline of interpersonal trust might just as easily cause the decline of informal institutions, rather than the reverse.

Unfortunately, there may be few simple answers to why Americans are less confident in and trusting of each other and institutions than ever before. While many factors may contribute, it seems unlikely that these declines are due simply to the state of the economy, simply to anger over particular political or financial realities, simply to a particular party or individual being in the White House or holding control of Congress. The declining patterns of trust seem to suggest broader and more fundamental changes that are gradually shifting public sentiments.

A potentially useful way to think about this trend is to start by defining trust in a rather simple but perhaps unintuitive way. Imagine a situation in which two individuals play an abstract game. In it, Person A is allowed to divide any portion of one dollar to the other, Person B, and that person may in turn return any amount of their portion back to person A. Trust could be defined as the amount of the dollar Person A is willing to give to Person B; Person B’s trustworthiness is the amount of the dollar Person B is willing to return to Person A. If the game is played an infinite number of times, then each player takes on the roles of Person A and Person B repeatedly: one person's trust becomes another person's perceptions of others' trustworthiness and vice versa.

In this abstract conceptualization of trust, a perfectly trusting society is one in which any individual is willing to give some good to anyone and that recipient can be trusted to return it in the future. As recipients defect—i.e., fail to return the money—an individual is less likely to trust as much the next time, and the recipient may be less inclined to return as much of their portion, and so on and so forth.

If we generalize from this, an individual is going to trust less when individuals and institutions are perceived as less trustworthy and this decline of trust has the implication of making the society as a whole less trustworthy. When you are less trusting, others perceive not only you but everyone as less trustworthy and this process accelerates as your own trust declines.

This helps to understand the broader patterns of declining trust in each other, in government, in media, in financial institutions, and so forth because it is our own declining trust in one another that makes society and institutions appear less worthy of trust. Obviously certain events play into this; the financial industry’s misbehavior, Congress’s polarization, etc. all play a role in exacerbating declining trust. Certainly, some institutions and some individuals betray public trust and it is thus with good cause that polls reflect this loss of confidence. But the patterns of declining trust appear to be too widespread and too consistent across institutions to be explained by the particular behavior of any given institution.

Ultimately the decline of trust among the American public is a diffuse phenomenon: the public trusts in little because we see others as less trusting than they were before. The only cure for that might be to actively trust just a little more and watch the cascade of public confidence follow.

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