Everyone talks about trust but how many people understand it?

27 June 2019 | Amy Sippitt and Esther Kersley

In our new briefing, Full Fact’s Research Manager Amy Sippitt goes beyond the survey headlines to look at what trust really means.

Both Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt have talked about the importance of ‘trust’ in their campaigns to be the next Conservative leader and Prime Minister.

It’s not surprising, trust is key for any elected leader and politicians don’t come off very well when it comes to trust. Look at any findings from trust surveys and you’ll see that the majority of the UK public generally says they distrust politicians.

But what do we really mean when we say we don’t trust politicians, or any other profession or institution?

In our new briefing we’ve gone beyond the survey headlines to look into what trust really means.

Trust to do what?

Two of the biggest trust surveys in the UK – the Ipsos MORI Veracity Index and Edelman’s Trust Barometer – both found that politicians are one of the least trusted professions in their latest surveys, but with slightly different results.

This is because of a difference in the trust they’re measuring.

Public relations agency Edelman’s Trust Barometer looks at trust to do “what is right”. It found that 42% of us trust the government to do what is right. The media scores the lowest of the four institutions Edelman asks about, with 37% trusting the media to do what is right. 47% trust business to do what is right and 47% trust NGOs.

Ipsos MORI’s Veracity Index, on the other hand, talks about trust to “tell the truth”. Here politicians do worse. They are the second least trusted profession, behind advertising executives. Just 19% of us say we generally trust politicians to tell the truth and 22% of us trust government ministers to tell the truth.

Defining trust

As the above examples show, different surveys are often talking about different things when referring to trust.

Trust is a hard thing to measure. So much so that in 2017, the OECD published a 200 page report analysing the different ways we can measure it.

In it they identified the need to distinguish between our trust in other people – known as ‘interpersonal’ trust- and our trust in institutions - ‘institutional’ trust.

Whilst people’s trust in other people is described as an important driver for well-being indicators, like income and life satisfaction, trust in institutions is seen as important for government and the economy.

The OECD’s report also makes a distinction between trust in people you don’t know or in situations where the person being trusted isn’t specified – known as ‘generalised’ trust, and trust in people you do know - ‘limited’ trust.

Why don’t we trust

Whilst a healthy dose of scepticism in our politicians can be seen as a good thing, in order to hold our leaders to account, a complete absence of trust poses a real threat to an open society.

We therefore need to look at why there’s a lack of trust in order to help us understand trust better.

Edelman’s 2018 survey asked respondents why they distrusted government to “do what is right”, with the most common reason being “they do not deliver on policy promises that protect average people”. The next two most common reasons were “they do not communicate honestly when problems arise”, and “they do not operate in a transparent and honest way”. 

In other words, from the public's point of view, distrust is a rational response to government failing to live up to people's expectations of trustworthy behaviour.

Democracy breaks down when we lose trust altogether in our elected leaders, we simply become disengaged.

Without a better understanding what trust means, we can’t begin to build it.

Misinformation and disinformation cause real harm to people’s lives, health, finances and to democracy. We need good evidence on how to tackle it. Full Fact has set up a research programme to find that evidence and make it useful.  

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