December 1, 2015

Trust: A Disappearing Commodity?

I'd suggest that a feeling of trust is essential to functioning in the world. You trust that the majority of cars will stop at a red light. You trust that every person walking past you on street isn't carrying a gun with the intention of doing you bodily harm (maybe not the best example). You trust that you dog will great you warmly when you come home. 

Trust is really the linchpin of how we operate. But, recent events in the world and certain survey results have called that statement into question. I wonder if we are moving into a time where some of the assumptions we make are no longer quite as valid.


courtesy psychologytoday.com 

A recent Pew Center study tells us that only 19% of Americans trust the government to do the right thing all or most of the time. That is one of the lowest figures in the last half century. During the Watergate scandal, the era near the end of our involvement in Vietnam, and period the during the financial and economic collapse of 2008-2009 similar scores occurred, but the trust in government percentage has been on a steady decline since 2003.

Trust in various institutions is no better. Many folks don't expect banks, financial institutions or the segment of society commonly known as Wall Street to play by the same rules as the rest of us. Few people think health insurance companies or drug manufacturers are bastions of honest dealings.

With the divorce rate among Baby Boomers growing more rapidly than any other age group, trust is an endangered commodity in relationships, too. A long term relationship, whether married or committed,  does not last long after trust is called into question. The number of smartphone apps that can track someone else's whereabouts has increased dramatically. 

Not only do parents want to know where junior is, but spouses want to keep tabs on their significant other. Though supposedly requiring the permission of both parties in such an arrangement, hiding an app on a smartphone is quite easy. Divorce attorneys report a dramatic increase in the use of such apps in messy relationship breakups. Doesn't speak to much trust, does it.

If all this is accurate, what is there to do about it? Do we simply adapt to a world where trust is conditional and in short supply? Do we approach all interactions with a jaundiced eye? Do we assume everyone is not to be trusted until proven otherwise?  Writing about trust and the common good is especially difficult during political season. The more outrageous the pronouncements and more provocative the claims, the better according to polls and media coverage. Truth becomes disconnected from facts. Trust is a non-factor.

Even so, I certainly hope that isn't our fate. I would not do well in a world where I had to distrust most everybody and everything. Even retreating behind a locked front door wouldn't stop the damage, since everything I do is connected to others in some way.

Trust is the foundation of my 39 year marriage. It is how I function with everyone from my investment advisers to the grocery store I frequent. I assume the gas station is selling me a gallon gas for a gallon's price. I depend on the power company to read my meter correctly when determining my monthly bill. I "know" my daughters would never do anything to hurt or cheat me. 

So, I guess my question is what can any of us do to reverse this climate of distrust that seems to be much too prevalent? Or, is this a period of man's time on earth that is based on the "only the strong survive" model?

I certainly hope not. 






18 comments:

  1. At a certain level I believe I have a reasonable amount of trust in people as individuals. Unfortunately, that does not hold true for most/all institutions as a general rule, many of which you have pointed out (e.g. medical institutions, financial institutions, many large companies in general, and most definitely government, the latter at ALL levels.) I think we can find exceptions to the rule. For example, my local branch of US Bank here in TN is exceptional, but that might be more related to the personality of the employees here in the South. I also have accounts with the Vanguard group, probably one of the premier and trustworthy groups in the financial arena, and have always been pleased with their honesty.

    How do we get back that trust? It will be difficult, particularly as the most untrustworthy group of all, government, continues to invade more and more of citizens lives. It is a tough nut to crack, Bob, and I don't have any answers, not when you have untrustworthy individuals running so many important institutions.

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    1. With greed being so well rewarded and truth no longer being an absolute but something defined by each individual, I don't have any answers either. Sure, each of us can strive to be trustworthy in all our interactions. But, I'm afraid that is kind of like the little boy with his finger in the dike. There are too many holes to plug.

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  2. I agree with ChuckY ... I don't trust politicians, Wall Street, big companies or big universities. I do trust my doctor, my bank, my neighbor. I also trust Vanguard. And, now that my kids are approaching 30, I'm finally starting to trust them as well!

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    1. I trust my banks, B of A and Chase, to maximize their profits. I trust them to work to protect my identity and data but I don't expect them to be flawless in this regard.

      I feel blessed: I have always trusted my kids since they were old enough to prove themselves trustworthy.

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  3. At first glance, distrust seems to be looming everywhere when we look at the big picture (government, industry, religious and financial institutions). But just as ChuckY pointed out, as a rule, the institutions and businesses with which I interact, have not let me down. If there's ever an issue, I'm quick to speak up in order to resolve it. One thing I believe is that when distrust arises in our lives, we should try to do something about it. Otherwise, we become frustrated and that can lead to other negative reactions. Maybe we will begin to see some changes in our government, eventually. It's amazing that many of the candidates leading the polls are NOT career politicians. Hopefully, those poll numbers are sending a bold statement to our leaders. I don't want to give up.

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    1. I think trust comes from individual relationships, but not institutions. Strengthening our one-to-one interactions is probably a step we can all take.

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  4. What a thought provoking post to start my day. In looking at the comments, I notice in the discussion that we tend to trust the individuals we know, but distrust larger "institutions." When I was teaching I learned that, when polled, vast numbers of parents in a community are dissatisfied with the state of public education in general, but are quite happy with their child's own school! I'm going to hope that trust in institutions works this way as well. We have more trust in the institutions when we come to know the actual character of the PEOPLE involved with those institutions. My banker, My financial advisor, even My health insurance broker, all have my trust because I know them personally, and have chosen to do business with them because of their unique characters. To that end, the only way to preserve a climate of trust is to raise children who have a firm understanding that a "man's word is his honor." I hope we are not too late!

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    1. I remember reading that the majority of Americans don't trust the government to do the right thing all the time, but that same majority likes the government programs and services with which they have an individual connection. That speaks to your point that something large and impersonal does not generate trust while an individual or group of people can.

      And, your point about raising children to respect others and honor their word is spot on. That is what the future must be built upon.

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  5. Great and timely question for one of the true tenets of life, trust. What led us down this slippery slope and continues to erode trust in others as we knew it? I worry that empathy of "what can I do", "it is not my problem", it is the government/big business" "it is just politics" or it is the "new normal" and we cannot reverse the selfishness of this current "trust" way of life. The good guys do not wear white and the bad guys black anymore, they cannot always be easily separated or identified for what they are. But, I am one person and I will do what I can to lead a trusting life.

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    1. The apathy that is generated when our trust is broken by big organizations, government, institutions, or even other people is a big part of the problem. I agree, Richard, with your central point. One person doing what he or she can is all any of us can do.

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  6. I wonder if one way to increase the level of community trust (as distinct from trust in known individuals) is to publicly model that trust. I remember an incident when I first moved to Maine in the early 1980s. Shortly after I moved, my ancient grad-student hand-me-down television died and I needed to replace it. I went to a local electronics store and, since this was before the days of ubiquitous credit cards, I asked if the owner would take a personal check. He would. As I handed over my signed check, I asked, 'What kind of ID do you want with that?" "I don't need to see any ID;" he responded, "once you start asking for ID, you've made a decision not to trust people -- and I don't want to live that way." This interaction made a big impression on me and made me realize that I'd landed in a special place. Attitudes like that of the store owner create a sense of community in which people feel connected even to those they don't know personally. 35 years later, I still find this attitude widespread in Maine. -Jean

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    1. The comments so far have given me a real boost: I hadn't really thought of the importance of the trust issue as it relates to our day-to-day interactions with others. Your story and the store owner's quote bring it into sharp focus.

      Showing trust in others may result in a "pay it forward" type of mindset. I sincerely hope so. Thank you, Jean.

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  7. Got some good advice on this topic 30+ years ago from Marv, a successful businessman who was a bit of a mentor. He confided that he used to be distrustful, and how that often put him in a foul mood. Then he decided to change his view.

    He said, "I used to assume people were out to cheat me. Now I assume people are basically good and honest. Turns out this is true most of the time. But if someone does cheat me, I immediately break off the relationship. I'm much happier, and I spend very little time worrying."

    I use this approach myself. But having been burned, I'm still careful. If somebody lies or cheats, I'm done with them. Not sure who said it, but I also like the advice "Trust...but verify."

    Always enjoy your musings, Bob. Please keep 'em coming.

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    1. "Trust, but verify" is a little problematic since it implies lack of trust. Maybe if we add the idea to trust but verify the first time. Then, simply trust until/unless that trust is proven to be misplaced.

      I certainly agree with you, Daryl, that the vast majority of folks I interact with are trustworthy. It is when they become part of a large, faceless institution with goals different from mine that things get dicey.

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  8. I like Daryl's point. Trust is not something that necessarily has to be earned but something that is taken away when it has been violated. Even though my blog posts don't often look like it, I also try to live by that standard.

    But I have come to fully understand that our capitalist system puts profits as the most dominant commodity, above everything else. In that regard I try to look after myself when dealing with our for-profit institutions and I try to do business with cooperatives and non-profits whenever I have a choice. It just makes life simpler when you don't have to constantly be looking for an underlying motive in all my dealings with major corporations.

    But yeah, I trust that my pension check and social security will be in my account on a monthly basis. Government is there to do the people's business and I try to trust that they will do just that... but I do keep a constant eye on them (ha)...

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    1. I certainly expect my SS deposit on the 2nd Wednesday of each month and I expect Medicare will handle most of my medical bills. Those are legitimate roles of government. I expect my money to be available at my bank or investment account when I need it. But, like you, I know the motivation for most of those transactions is not my greater good, but the corporations' shareholders best interests. I always keep that in mind. But, as Daryl and others have noted, individually we are a pretty trustworthy group of humans.

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  9. Trust has not completely left our landscape of emotions. It is present and begins with each one of us. In your past blogs you posed the question " What do we do all day with our time?" For me, I always try to do something nice for someone I know or for perfect strangers I see on the street each day. Whether it's holding a car door open for someone who has their hands full of groceries, rolling my neighbor's recycling cans back in the driveway. These simple acts of kindness instill trust to people and we're not just thinking of ourselves. It will cause them to think and act to pass on a kind gesture that instills trust.

    When we board a plane we trust the pilot and all the other factors that effect a safe flight. When we hop in our cars for a quick errand or going to work, we trust total strangers with our lives.

    We live in an imperfect world but, instilling trust can slowly change things. Whether it's a public or private institution or agency. This commodity trust thing has not left us. It's how things get done each day in our lives.

    The recent events in San Bernardino illustrated that local law enforcement agencies were present to rescue the victims and restore order in the community. That is Trust.

    If our leaders in government and the leadership of corporations and institutions can model this commodity- Trust. Our world as we know it will become a better place for everyone.

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    1. Instilling trust in others based on our actions is the only way forward. You have summarized this conundrum well, Russ. Thanks, as always, for your addition to this blog.

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