Can We Trust the Arbiters of Our Trust?

America is descending into a maelstrom of distrust. The data suggests we are steadily hemorrhaging trust in our public schools, Congress, media, unions, banks, tech, and the U.S. Supreme Court. We are also losing trust in one another other, with 6 in 10 of us today feeling “you can’t be too careful in dealing with people.”

Some argue that this loss in trust — particularly in our institutions — is driving current levels of toxic political polarization, as Americans increasingly turn to their political tribes to find a sense of belonging, meaning and efficacy. The effects of our decaying trust and spiraling division have impaired our social cohesion to such a degree that the Economist Intelligence Unit recently downgraded American democracy to the category of “flawed.”

So, where should Americans turn to begin to rebuild trust and restore our democracy?

Recently, the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer report was released, an impressive 72-page infographic on the state of institutional trust across 28 nations. As David Brooks described it during a recent event on restoring trust in institutions, the Edelman report is currently considered the gold standard for tracking trust and distrust worldwide.

The news on trust in the U.S. is bleak. The report found that our trust has declined by 10 points since 2017, placing us near the bottom of the nations surveyed. The headline of the report is “Government and Media Fuel a Cycle of Distrust,” emphasizing that trust in both institutions, which are today seen as largely divisive, has significantly declined.

However, there is a glimmer of hope, according to the report, which it heralds with the claim “Business still only trusted institution.” It then goes on to describe the perceived failings, incompetence and divisiveness of government and media as the primary drivers that threaten our stability, and hold up business as the more competent, ethical force of our time. It concludes, “People want more business leadership, not less.”

I was not familiar with the Edelman Barometer, which has published these reports for the last 20 years, so I probed a bit. Turns out Edelman is an American public relations and marketing consultancy firm — the largest in the world. Their website extolls their mission to partner “with businesses and organizations to evolve, promote and protect their brands and reputations.” Their motto: “Edelman — Earning Trust Through Communications.”

This gave me pause. Why is the world’s largest PR firm, whose raison d’être is protecting brands, in the business of reporting on global trust? And why is it seen as the gold standard? The more I unpacked this glossy report, the more flies I found in its ointment.

To illustrate, take the category of “Business” in the report, which is a vast grouping of industries. It turns out that Edelman collapses “Small Business” and “Big Business.” Why does this matter? According to Gallup, Small Business is the most trusted U.S. institution, with a 70% positive confidence rating, while Big Business is one of the least trusted, with an 18% trust rating. In fact, one of the challenges inherent to such reports is that their categories like “Media” and “Government” are broad and vague and therefore can hide a multitude of sins. For instance, local media and local government are much more trusted than national sources, facts lost in the report.

Or consider the country rankings on trust across the nations surveyed. The most trusted nations identified in the 2022 report are China, UAE, India, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and Thailand, while the least trusted included Spain, the UK, the US, Germany, Japan and South Korea.

It is striking that many of the top “trusted” nations are some of the most corrupt and least transparent in the world, according to Transparency International. Might it be that respondents in these societies are less inclined to report feelings of institutional distrust in a survey than, say, citizens of Germany and the U.S.? So, what, exactly, are we to make of such results? Are autocracies better at instilling trust or arousing fear?

These flaws are merely the most glaring to be found in the report. The other conceptual and methodological problems are too many to itemize here, but they raise critical questions about its agenda. A cursory reading of its findings tells a simple tale of government ineptitude and business heroics. A more careful read belies this narrative. So, should we trust this “gold standard” that is often the go-to source of journalists?

Research finds that higher rates of inequality and deprivation across a “desperation threshold” lead to deficits in trust. So, to whom should we turn to address these runaway drivers of our distrust? Corporations and their PR strategists are trying to sell trust in business like cars and candy. Perhaps it is time for all of us to become more discerning about who we trust with our understanding of trust.

Peter T. Coleman, PhD, is a Professor at Columbia University who studies intractable conflict and sustainable peace. His latest book is The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarization.

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Peter T Coleman is a professor of psychology and education at Teachers College Columbia University who studies intractable conflict and sustainable peace

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Peter T. Coleman

Peter T. Coleman

Peter T Coleman is a professor of psychology and education at Teachers College Columbia University who studies intractable conflict and sustainable peace

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