Distrust: Rational or Irrational?
Trust in media, politicians, the courts, etc., has declined in many countries over the last few years. New Zealand has not been immune to this phenomenon. The Acumen Edelman Trust Barometer for 2023 shows that, for the first time, no major institution can be considered “trusted” by Kiwis. In particular, our trust in Government and Government leaders has decreased dramatically over the past year.
Traditionally, we have been considered a high-trust country compared to the rest of the world. No longer. Our trust in the Government, Business, NGOs and the Media is now at or below the 2023 global average.
A fundamental question we must address is whether our lack of trust is irrational or rational.
A lower-trust society is generally a worse place to live. If, as the Aspen Institute’s Jane Wales asserts, trust is the societal glue that holds democracies together, then we need to figure out how to strengthen that adhesive.
According to Oxford philosopher Tom Simpson, a fundamental question we must address is whether our lack of trust is irrational or rational. That is, is this particular institution untrustworthy and unworthy of my trust, and therefore, I would be rational not to trust it?
Alternatively, is the problem with those lacking trust: have they made a poor decision by withholding trust from a trustworthy institution and are therefore irrational in so doing?
Our decision to withhold trust in a particular situation will come down to a mix of irrational and rational factors.
Because we are deep in the realm of political science and human behaviour, the answer to that question will always be complicated. Each of us makes judgments about trust that are not wholly rational. We are creatures not only of intellect but also of emotions, imagination, and intuition. Thus, our decision to withhold trust in a particular situation will come down to a mix of irrational and rational factors.
Similarly, within the group of people who say they distrust a particular person or institution (for example, the media), some will do so for mainly rational reasons and others who will have mainly irrational explanations for doing so.
Finally, it will be messy because we may trust an institution or person to do X but not Y. For example, there will be many Trump supporters in the USA who would never trust him to babysit their kids. But these people would trust him to bring political retribution to their political adversaries.
Tom Simpson suggested one fix: elites need to be renewed on the basis of diversity, excellence, and a notion of self-sacrificial servant leadership.
Although it does not map neatly onto the messy picture of human trust levels, the framing of distrust as “rational” or “irrational” is a useful tool. It points us towards the most helpful policy response. If it is mainly driven by irrationality, then our response might be to focus on combatting disinformation and changing the public’s mind.
However, if, instead, distrust is mainly driven by rational responses to our institutions’ untrustworthiness, the focus becomes rejuvenating those institutions. At the recent Sir John Graham Lecture, Tom Simpson suggested one fix: elites need to be renewed on the basis of diversity, excellence, and a notion of self-sacrificial servant leadership. It’s a worthy challenge in this election season both to our politicians and to us.go back