Many believe that trust is declining in a ‘post-truth’ world. But is it true? Does trust matter? And what can be done to improve it?

Trusting in trust

Many commentators have claimed that the world is experiencing a crisis of trust. Elites, experts, leaders, and the ‘mainstream media’ have been attacked as out of touch, self-serving, or down-right mendacious. Debates rage over ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’. But does the evidence support these narratives? Is trust important? And, if it is, what can be done to improve it?

A new report by Ipsos MORI reveals that the truth may be more nuanced than these claims suggest. In fact, people’s overall levels of trust in each other people appears to have been stable or rising within most countries (including the UK) for years. People in the UK perceive that levels of trust are declining, but that perception seems largely incorrect. 

In the US the major decline in trust occurred in the 1960’s and 1970’s – at the time of the Vietnam War and Watergate – but recent years have not seen major falls. In other words any problem appears to be chronic not acute. 

The evidence certainly does suggest that people’s trust in their governments and elites is low relative to trust in other sectors and groups. Politicians were found to be the least trusted professional group (two thirds of people in the UK do not trust them), with scientists and doctors the most trusted (60% do trust them). 69% of British people surveyed agreed that ‘traditional parties and politicians do not care about people like me’. Yet this has changed little over the last few years. 

One major change is in the digital sphere: the internet is significantly less trusted than it used to be, as people become more aware of the dangers of fake news, echo chambers, troll farms, and other attacks on objective truth. 

Trusted organisations continue to have a vital role to play, even as their traditional dominance is challenged in the digital marketplace

The growth of the internet has undermined the positions of traditional gatekeepers. Yet the Ipsos research also found that a rising proportion of people around the world – now around 60% of those surveyed – said they trusted certain established brands and organisations (the report cites the record circulation of the Washington Post as one example). Trusted organisations continue to have a vital role to play, even as their traditional dominance is challenged in the digital marketplace. 

The internet, for long seen as a challenge to such organisations, may in fact lead to changes in perceptions which give them a newly discovered importance. This suggests the on-going importance of internationally trusted news sources like the BBC – or indeed for cultural and educational brands like the British Council – both for the UK and the wider world. 

Trust across borders

The benefits of higher levels of trust across society and also between different countries are demonstrable. The economic benefits of higher trust are significant, not least because, as Francis Fukuyama argued in Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity, they reduce transaction costs. Numerous studies have shown that trust can yield major advantages and is robustly linked to higher economic growth, with one finding that a 15% rise in trust is associated with a 1% rise in growth (see Zak and Knack (2001) Trust and Growth. Economic Journal 111/470: 295:321). 

On an international level, this is backed up by research conducted by the British Council, which showed that people from other countries who trust the UK are roughly twice as likely to want to do business with, study, visit, or experience the culture of the country.

Fortunately, the UK enjoys high levels of trust around the world, although people overseas trust British people and institutions more than they trust the UK Government. The British Council research found that the leading drivers of that trust in the people of the UK were the perceptions that they contributed to development aid, that they were open and welcoming, and that they had world-leading arts and culture, a free justice system, and a free press.  

As for trust in the UK government amongst people in other countries, the most important drivers were again the perceptions that the UK aids development, is open and welcoming, and works constructively with other countries. Being a strong democratic society and respecting the rule of law are also important (though they come further down the list). These suggest areas where policymakers hoping to increase levels of trust in the UK might want to concentrate their efforts. 

It should be noted that, in international relations, much academic analysis has argued that to be deemed trustworthy as a country is to be judged as honourable and willing to do what is right, rather than simply to be seen as predictable (see for example Hoffman (2002) A Conceptualization of Trust in International Relations. European Journal of International Relations 8/3: 375-401). In other words that there is apparently a moral dimension to the judgement.  

As it seeks to make its way in the world after Brexit, it will be important for the UK to act in such a way as to cement that reputation, rather than allow itself to be seen as unreliable – to be what Napoleon once famously called ‘perfidious Albion’

According to the latest data, the UK has established a positive reputation for itself in many countries. As it seeks to make its way in the world after Brexit, it will be important for the UK to act in such a way as to cement that reputation, rather than allow itself to be seen as unreliable – to be what Napoleon once famously called ‘perfidious Albion’. 

One important area will be on the level of personal rather than diplomatic relationships. Greater personal contact appears to increase levels of trust, with net trust among people who have been involved in cultural relations with the UK being significantly higher (50%) than amongst those who had not (32%). The advantage was particularly marked amongst those who had engaged with the British Council (75% of those who had done so trusted the UK). 

As one organisation dedicated to increasing levels of mutual trust, the British Council is involved with various programmes which may affect levels of trust within other countries, as well as trust in the UK. These include programmes designed to strengthen civil society, critical thinking, media literacy, journalistic skills, and the ability to question politicians. 

Some might argue that this could fuel scepticism in existing governments and institutions. As the Ipsos report points out, in one respect lower trust could be a side-effect of increasing transparency across Government and many sectors and professions. As such it is hopefully a temporary side-effect, as greater transparency changes behaviour and leads to greater accountability – and thence to greater trustworthiness in the long-term. 

So it is to be hoped that the long-run and mutually beneficial effect of initiatives like these will be to help people hold their government and institutions to account and therefore increase the trustworthiness of those governments and institutions, whilst hopefully at the same time improving their levels of trust in the UK due to the cultural contact effect already discussed.

Trust does matter. It may not be in terminal decline in the way that is sometimes reported, but that does not mean that it is not an important consideration for policymakers. The UK and its institutions and people derive many benefits from being trusted, largely as a result of positive perceptions of our values and behaviour. Continuing to be trustworthy, and to uphold, invest in, and support those values and behaviours, is important for the future.