Six Ways to Repair Declining Social Trust
We must take proactive and preventive steps to restore trust
Plummeting public trust is sweeping the globe. It is infecting relations among people, between people and their governments, and between people and a range of societal institutions. We sense this erosion of trust in social media and domestic politics, in our communities, and even at our dinner tables. Distrust infuses public rhetoric and political debates, obstructing action in the public interest. Together, this cumulative distrust is undermining the ability of social institutions to function and serve the people they are intended to benefit. And if researchers are correct that trust is easier to destroy than construct, the consequences of today’s trust deficit could haunt societies around the world for many years to come.
The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, which surveys people across 28 countries, found declining public trust across business, media, NGOs, and government for the first time in 17 years of research. The Gallup World Poll shows that in 26 out of 38 countries polled between 2007 and 2016, trust in national government dropped in the aggregate, and many countries have seen a decline of more than 20 percentage points. Meanwhile, a 2017 Pew Research Center study of 38 countries suggests that trust in government is alarmingly low, with a global median of only 14 percent of people saying they trust their national government “a lot” to do what is right for the country. Other studies suggest an overall decline of trust among people in many countries—particularly in nations where income inequality, educational attainment levels, gross domestic product, and civic engagement are low.
As Harvard professor Tarun Khanna describes in his book Trust: Creating the Foundation for Entrepreneurship in Developing Countries, trusted institutions move societies forward by playing two important roles: They dramatically simplify daily life, and they enable new collaborative solutions. In other words, trusted institutions are grease in the social machine. In contrast, a dearth of trust in institutions carries costs. Khanna and others point out that when citizens lack trust, they are less likely to comply with laws and regulations, pay taxes, tolerate different viewpoints or ways of life, contribute to economic vitality, resist the appeals of demagogues, or support their neighbors. Without trust, societies are at risk of chaos and conflict. They are less likely to create and invent.
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