Trust: A cornerstone of wellbeing - the building blocks for a flourishing society
Together with Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Government, we explore some of the issues around trust in New Zealand, understanding how the public’s perceptions of people and institutions can be built up to improve wellbeing for all.
That trust is a cornerstone of wellbeing is something most people will intuitively feel to be true. Trust is instrumental in creating social cohesion and can be viewed as the glue that holds many different types of relationships together, yet it appears to be under attack in many quarters. The 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer titles its report “the battle for truth” and we are beset with ideas like ‘fake news’. Arguably, some leaders are encouraging us not to trust in traditional sources. What is interesting is that many of the factors that underpin trust apply to both the personal and the broadly political, especially in the realm of wellbeing.
Trust and individual wellbeing
Anybody reading this article who has ever felt betrayed by a friend, family member of a colleague already understands the relationship between trust and wellbeing. Breaches of trust can cause serious psychological and emotional pain, and this can spill over into physical symptoms of anxiety and stress.
Frequently these consequences are compounded by victims blaming themselves. A serious breach of personal trust usually makes a person question their own beliefs and behaviour. Why didn’t I know what was happening? How could I not see the signs? And most commonly, why did I trust this person at all?
These problems apply equally to organisations and even society. A lack of trust corrodes social relationships and belief not only in politicians but the political system as a whole. We see the consequences of this all over the world at this very moment: the echo chambers of social media; the twenty-four seven attack on news and media; the rise of authoritarianism - even within democracies - as a response to distrust in politics.
Fortunately, New Zealand does not yet suffer from many of these issues; indeed recent evidence from the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies’ (based at Victoria University of Wellington) latest public trust survey indicates that people have responded very positively to the new government. This article explores some of the issues around trust in New Zealand, and suggests that this recent rise in public trust is attributable to the basic psychological building blocks of why we all trust people and institutions.
What is trust?
It is frequently taken for granted that trust is something that we must always aspire to and that it is an inherent good. That is somewhat exaggerated. When trust degrades into blind faith it can cause no end of problems, and there are myriad sound reasons for people being distrustful depending on context.
This is because trust is a relational value and is good only in as much as it mediates relationships between different individuals and/or groups of people. As such, trust relationships are slightly paradoxical; they must be dynamic and open to reinterpretation and reassessment, even though they are the building blocks for us being able to make decisions between groups or individuals.
Just because X trusts Y one week, it does not mean that they will do so indefinitely. Nor should they, necessarily, without good reason. For example, a trusted brand can soon be adversely affected by a big enough scandal. Trust, therefore needs to be earned and re-earned almost constantly. It is not an end point.
There are many scholarly definitions of trust, and even more reasons why the concept is so important, most of which are no better nor worse than the ones that are already in your head (See Figure 1).
Figure 1: OECD and trust (http://www.oecd.org/gov/trust-in-government.htm)
Trust is important for the success of a wide range of public policies that depend on behavioural responses from the public.
The degree of trust in any relationship is obviously, therefore, two-sided and one side can only affect the other up to a certain point. We can try and get another person to trust us, but it is always ultimately their choice as to how much trust they will reciprocate with.
Why do we trust?
There are three key building blocks in any trust relationship: credibility, reliability and intimacy.
- Credibility can take many forms, such as natural authority, mana, or technical expertise, but it is essential in assuring people that those responsible for an action are the most appropriate people to do so. It is credibility that appears to be causing numerous issues in the world today: as the Edelman Trust barometer shows both globally and within New Zealand, people’s trust in the reliability and honesty of news sources is continuing to decline.
- Reliability is critical to the dynamic nature of trust. It is not enough to do something once but it needs to be done consistently and reliably again and again. It’s opposite, erratic behaviour, is frequently recognised as a key to poor leadership. Reliability is a key aspect of political interpretation: does a government live up to its promises? Does it react in consistent ways?
- Intimacy in this context means awareness and knowledge of, and relates to the fact that usually, trust needs to be earned. It is very difficult to have trust in an organisation that we know nothing about, or of a manager that is new to us. Intimacy relates to the affective and emotional aspects of trust. Familiarity (or perceived familiarity) grants an emotional connection that engenders a trusting relationship.
These also correlate positively with our views on institutions, as well as individuals. To give just one example, the latest KiwisCount survey shows that trust in the public service has been steadily rising over the last decade and is currently about 45%. When the same question is asked to people who have had personal experience of the public sector, the levels of trust are shown to be much higher, currently at 79% (see below). 1
The state of trust in New Zealand
Surveys like the Edelman Trust Barometer suggest the world is undergoing a “global implosion of trust” across four key institutional pillars: governments; the media; business; and NGOs.2 Globally, trust in these four pillars are down both individually (for example, governments are now distrusted in 75% of countries) and collectively, with the barometer reporting that 85% of respondents no longer have full belief in the system. There is deep concern that this will lead to further erosion of social values, which will only serve to increase distrust further.
The Edelman results for New Zealand show some interesting parallels to global results, and also interesting differences. There is 50% higher levels of trust in the government, for example. 45% of New Zealanders think that the government is most likely to lead to a better future, as compared to 30% of respondents around the world.3
The first Institute for Governance and Policy Studies (IGPS) Public Trust Survey in 2016 showed very different results. New Zealand has always been known as a high-integrity and high-trust nation. The OECD work on trust showed not only that levels of trust are higher than across other countries, they actually increased during periods of economic and political unrest such as the great financial crash of 2008. The rest of the OECD had declined.4
The 2016 IGPS Survey showed substantial levels of public trust in the medical profession, the police and the justice sector, the education sector, small business, charities and churches.
Yet the 2016 survey also showed that trust in politicians and government was very low.5 Only 9% of respondents had either “complete trust” or “lots of trust” in Government Ministers, and that shrank to 8% for MPs. Only the media scored lower: 8% for TV/Print media and a measly 5% for online and digital media.
These figures brought New Zealand much more into line with the US, continental Europe and the UK and also raised many questions. Why was distrust so low, for example, in online media, when so many people access their information from such sources? Why actively use the channels we distrust the most? These questions reflect international concerns.
2018 NZ Public Trust survey
The second IGPS Public Trust survey was published in June 2018 and highlights some interesting trends.6 Levels of public trust in the medical and criminal justice sectors had increased. Trust in universities, churches and charities had declined slightly. Perhaps most tellingly the most substantial increase was in trust in MPs and Government Ministers which both stand at a net total of 62% trust (both up from a net total of 46% in 2016). Those that had “complete trust” or “lots of trust” in Government Ministers and Members of Parliament increased from 9% to 14%, and from 8% to 12%, respectively from 2016 to 2018.
How do we explain these changes? Partly it may be down to the classic honeymoon effect. A newly elected government frequently has a fillip in public trust, and this is usually more pronounced when a new party leads that government. This is a pattern that is seen in democratic countries around the world. The question for New Zealand, of course, is whether or not the 2018 results are part of this pattern or reflect something a little more unique? What is the effect in the change in government? Such a hypothesis may seem a little trite to some but I would suggest is grounded in what we know about trust.
The credibility of any new government is almost always high and is a substantial reason why people cast their votes in that direction to begin with. This is not necessarily the case in a coalition government, of course, which no single citizen votes for. Yet personal credibility counts too and there is little question at all that skilful politicians are broadly recognised to have that in abundance. But we also need to remember that trust relationships are dynamic and, arguably, our Government’s leadership credibility has not yet been tested.
Similarly new governments score highly on the reliability scale simply because they are new. There has not been enough time to test reliability and consistency of performance either against the day-to-day cut and thrust of government life, or even against manifesto pledges. Again, time may be a crucial determinant in the way that this factor ebbs and flows and reliability becomes a much more important determinant as time passes. Occasionally being seen as a politically reliable ‘safe pair of hands’ can be both blessing and curse.
Intimacy is surely the most telling factor for now, however. Politicians who have a genuine gift for creating a sense of being open, accessible and known to voters (in a way that few others can) are often successful. But even here there is a potential pitfall. Commentators as far back as Machiavelli, writing in 1515, noted that the political leader who is loved sets expectations that will almost always ultimately be thwarted. As we have seen around the world, leaders have drastic falls in public trust, and this can partly be attributed to the fact that people felt they knew the person in question. When a let-down occurs, the sense of loss is more tangible and acute. And, of course, it means that a public leader must always be seen to be authentic.
Virtuous circles or vicious cycles?
From many reports the world seems to be in a dangerous place where distrust is all around, and is only getting stronger in cycles of despair. Although issues remain, public trust in New Zealand is not at the crisis point that it appears to be in other parts of the world. Can we trust that to remain the case in the medium to long term?
In conclusion, it is worth re-emphasising a few points. First, the building blocks of trust apply to both individuals and organisations alike. Second, trust is dynamic and is therefore something that needs to be revisited, readjusted and recalibrated at various points. Third, a key mechanism to enable this is a reflection both on an individual and institutional level. Leaders who reflect will be more open and ethical in their approach. Institutions that enable reflection have cultures that are accessible and supportive. Those that do not reflect are in danger of becoming hermetically sealed and toxic.
Crucially, the final message is that these elements must develop together. A better trust relationship allows for more openness and better quality reflection, and in doing so it is more likely to lead to higher levels of trust. Overall, this increases wellbeing. It can be a virtuous circle and is a path that New Zealand would do well to continue down.
About the author
Dr Michael Macaulay is Associate Dean, Victoria Business School at Victoria University of Wellington. He works with agencies across all sectors in New Zealand and internationally, including the United Nations and Council of Europe. Michael has published extensively in the fields of integrity, ethics and anti-corruption.
1. State Services Commission. (2016). Kiwis Count. Retrieved from: http://www.ssc.govt.nz/sites/all/files/2016-kiwis-count-ar.pdf
2. Edelman. (2017). Edelman Trust Barometer. Retrieved from: https://www.edelman.com/trust2017
3. Edelman. (2018). The Battle for Trust: 2018 Acumen Edelman Trust Barometer. Retrieved from: https://www.acumenrepublic.com/media/1406/trust-barometer-new-zealand-march-2018.pdf
4. OECD. (2013). Government at a Glance 2013. Retrieved from: http://www.oecd.org/gov/GAAG2013_CFS_NZL.pdf
5. Institute for Governance and Policy Studies. (2016). Who do we trust? Retrieved from: https://www.victoria.ac.nz/sog/pdf/IGPS-Who-Do-We-Trust-Survey-March2016.pdf
6. Institute for Governance and Policy Studies. (2018). Public Trust Survey. Retrieved from: https://www.victoria.ac.nz/__data/assets/pdf_file/0007/1616380/IGPS-Trust-Presentation-June2018.pdf