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From lovers to institutions, Andrew Graystone explores the importance of trust and how its decline is affecting the society we live in. 14/02/2023
Roses are red
Violets are blue
My last partner dumped me
Can I trust you?
An awful lot of life depends on the assumption that other people are telling us the truth. We need to get to the station in the faith that the train is going to leave on time – even if it didn’t yesterday. And we need to trust that if a lover says they will be faithful, they will deliver on what they have promised. If we lose all trust in the train timetable, we will have no option but to stay at home. The same goes for the potential lover. The belief that another person can be relied on to do what they say they will is critical to romantic relationships, but also in the workplace, in business, and in government. Society just can’t function without mutual trust.
But here’s the dilemma: we have no way of knowing whether the train company will deliver today. And we have no way of knowing for certain whether most people are usually trustworthy. We have to make judgements based on personality, culture and life experience.
The belief that on average, your fellow woman or man is probably a decent person – what psychologists call “generalised” or “social” trust – correlates with higher intelligence, better health and overall life satisfaction. Religious adherence may have been in steady decline over the past four decades, but even on the battlefields of the information and culture wars, levels of social trust have held up pretty well, and even rose slightly between 2014 and 2019.
In recent years, like wary lovers, many of us have developed a conscious scepticism of uncorroborated information as a tool for navigating digital media. We want to trust, so we have taught ourselves to recognise the fake email and the dodgy website. The past few years has also seen the growth of fact checking sites like Full Fact and Snopes, and the BBC recently appointed a ‘Disinformation and Social Media Correspondent’. Then again, we all have to decide which of these self–appointed guardians of the truth we choose to trust.
There are some encouraging signs that we still care about the truth. There is an enduring expectation across the political spectrum that politicians who are caught lying forfeit their right to govern. The words that ended Nadim Zahawi’s time as Chairman of the Conservative Party came in a report to the Prime Minister from his independent ‘ethics adviser’ Sir Laurie Magnus. “I consider that [his] delay in correcting an untrue public statement is inconsistent with the requirement for openness.” In plainer words, Zahawi lost his job because according to the report, he did not tell the truth, even when given a second opportunity to do so.
In some ways it is remarkable that we still hold politicians to this standard, given that when push comes to shove, most of us don’t generally trust them to tell the truth. We know this, because every year since 1983 the polling company Ipsos has compiled a Veracity Index.2 The format is simple. Researchers contact around a thousand representative members of the public and read them a list of professions. In each case, the interviewees are asked “Do you generally trust this person to tell you the truth, or not?” It’s a question worth reflecting on.
This year, only 12% of those polled said that they generally trust politicians to tell the truth. That’s a fall of 7% since last year’s survey, and takes public trust in politicians to an all–time low. Law–makers find themselves in the relegation zone alongside advertising executives, journalists and estate agents. Those who are most trusted according to the Ipsos survey include nurses, teachers, doctors and museum curators, though even they have seen a fall in trust this year. Very few professions have managed to buck the trend. Trust in trade union officials has risen a little this year, and so has trust in TV news readers.
The profession that has seen the greatest shift over the 40 years of the survey is clergy or priests. Trust in church ministers has maintained a steep downward trajectory. Clergy came in at 85% when the survey was first taken in 1983, which put them in the premier league of trusted professions. By 2022 they had dropped to 55%, meaning that they are, if not in the relegation zone, certainly in the bottom half of the table. Clergy are trusted less than taxi drivers or people serving in restaurants, and only slightly more than car mechanics. In fact this year, for the first time, those who were surveyed were less likely to trust a church minister to tell the truth than they were to trust “the man or woman in the street”.
We could speculate as to why this has happened: locally, the decline in church attendance means that fewer people get to know their local vicar in person; nationally, the litany of stories about clerical sex abuse and cover–up may have created a wider narrative of mistrust. Whatever the reason, today’s clergy cannot assume that they are trusted in the way that their predecessors were.
At every level of society, trust is the foundation for cooperation. The ability to trust other people is partly innate, but much of it is learned or lost in experience. We need our politicians, our lovers, our clergy and our train companies to hold themselves to high standards of integrity, in order to create a culture of trust. Some sectors of society have some work to do.
Roses are red
Violets are blue
When I can trust you
You can trust me too.
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Photo by Pixabay
Andrew is the Public Engagement Lead at Theos. He has been a journalist and commentator, a BBC TV producer, and has also written and presented many programmes for BBC radio. He is the author of ‘Bleeding for Jesus’ (DLT, 2021), and ‘Faith Hope and Mischief’ (Canterbury, 2020).
Posted 14 February 2023
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.