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  • Writer's pictureYoram Solomon, PhD

Trust and COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic, now entering its third year, had a major impact on trust in many ways. Some might say that the impact is not smaller than the events of 9/11. In this article, I will discuss things such as our trust in the media, science, and experts, the impact of virtual meetings on intimacy and trust, the impact of the polarization around masks and vaccines on trust, the quality of education, and the impact it will have on trust in the future, and the great resignation. I will not take a position on those topics but rather discuss how they relate to, affect, or are affected by trust. Finally, I’ll address the issue of “the new normal.”

Our trust in experts and the media

One morning I heard that the number of new COVID cases in Texas had declined by 60%. Not five minutes later, on the same TV channel, as the program switched from the local affiliate to the national program, they stated that the number of cases in Texas increased by 81%. How can it be? When I checked the CDC’s website, I learned that both were right. The number of cases in Texas decreased 60% over the past month while increasing 81% over the past week. They simply provided different pieces of the whole picture to support their position. The local affiliate defended the governor’s new ban on mask mandates, while the national program urged everyone to get vaccinated. So, both used only part of the whole picture. The part that will support their position on the issue.

We grew to accept this bias in the media, and as a result, we trust it less because it violates one of the positivity elements of telling me the whole truth and not just parts of it.

How about experts?

In 2005, Dr. John Ionnidis published a research paper titled Why Most Published Research Findings Are False, analyzing 49 of the most highly regarded research finding in medicine, declaring that when the findings of those studies were retested in larger studies, 16% of them were contradicted, 16% of them showed a smaller effect than initially stated, and that 68% of them were never challenged by follow-on studies. One of his findings was that financial and other interests and prejudices often intervene with the study, causing the results to be less likely to be true.

Experts have been changing their minds multiple times over the use of masks, the types of masks that should be used, the effective “social distancing” distance, and more. That’s perfectly fine, as they are learning “on the fly.” The problem is that they never say they are not sure, and when they change their guidelines, they never acknowledge the fact that they were wrong before.

We trust people who say when they are wrong, when they are not sure, and when they share what they know.

Intimacy and Zoom Calls

I wrote a lot about intimacy and how it accelerates trust. When you see the body language (and specifically facial expressions) of the person you speak with, you can tell if they mean what they say. When their body language is consistent with their works, you trust them. When it is inconsistent, you distrust them. When you can’t see their body language, you are hesitant, limiting your trust in them.

We are now wearing masks. A large percentage of the facial muscles are covered, preventing us from observing facial expressions. This, by itself, has a slowing effect on trust-building.

On the other side, when we hold a video meeting, we can see the other person’s face. There are times when it is perhaps better to hold a video call than an in-person meeting if it allows us to see the other person’s face better, which will accelerate trust.

But for that, we must turn on our cameras. When the other person you are speaking with has their camera turned off, you can’t see their faces, but they also send you a message of disrespect and asymmetry. Your camera is on, while theirs is off. You respect them by being prepared and presentable to the meeting while they are not. You care about what they see and feel while they are not. And as a result, you trust them less.

With a dramatic increase in the number of people who work from home, some tools allow managers to ensure that their employees do their jobs and are not slacking at home. Those tools, installed on the employee’s computer, track their computer use and report to the manager.

There are several problems with this approach. First, if you don’t trust your employees to do their jobs, maybe you simply have untrustworthy employees, and you should replace them rather than track them. Second, trust is reciprocal. Not only that trustworthy people earn your trust, but when you trust someone and show them that you trust them, they will behave in a trustworthy way to avoid the uncomfortable feeling of cognitive dissonance. When you track your employees’ remote work, you send them a clear message that you don’t trust them. As a result, they will become less trustworthy.

Increased Polarization

The pandemic brought some polarizing issues to the forefront. Why are we wearing masks? To protect ourselves, or to protect others? Are the potential vaccine side effects better or worse than the results of not getting vaccinated? How do we balance my rights with yours?

The strongest trustworthiness component, which demonstrates how trust is relative, is personality compatibility. We see things differently, and we trust those who see things as we do. We don’t have to see everything the same, only the important things. The problem is that we consider the issues listed above very important to us. As a result, we don’t trust those who don’t see them the same way we do.

How do I know that we see these issues as important? By the passion demonstrated over them. The FAA showed that between 1995 and 2020, the number of unruly passenger cases averaged less than 150/year. In 2021 alone, this number increased to 1,097 cases in one year. Over what? For the most part, masks. This issue is not only important; it is polarizing and erodes trust.

Education and the Future of Trust

McKinsey indicated that the pandemic caused K–12 students to fall 5 months behind in math and 4 in reading by the end of the school year. It was worse for students in majority Black schools (6 months) and low-income schools (7 months). With remote learning and sick days (both students and teachers), all students fall behind. Keeping them in school an extra year is not an option. A new kindergarten class will enter every year, and schools will not handle this 8% increase in student population. Higher education will probably not handle a drop in enrollment since the senior year will not graduate.

As a result, we simply accept that students will have less knowledge and experience when they graduate from school. Higher education schools will have to lower their acceptance criteria and the level of content they teach. We will get a less competent workforce. With competence being a significant component of trust (I found a 59% correlation between competence and trust), we will trust the future workforce less.

The Great Resignation

Long gone are the days of “one life, one career.” “At-will” employment is the rule, and loyalty is the exception. By both the employer and the employee. The lower the trust employers have in their employees, the less they share their financial concerns with them. Companies tell their employees that “everything is fine” until they conduct major layoffs with less than a day warning.

There is no doubt that the pandemic had hurt some major transportation, hospitality, and other service industries very hard. Companies had to let employees go. As a result, employees’ trustability (their overall trust in employers and their industries in general) took a major hit.

Employees feel their employers are less loyal to them, so they don’t trust employers. This relationship is reciprocal. When employers don’t trust their employees enough to make them partners to solve the problems, employees are out for themselves and don’t show loyalty to their employers.

The New Normal?

Many ask what “the new normal” would look like. We asked the same question after 9/11. All normal is new. Our environment (natural, political, economic, and more) keeps changing. Sometimes it changes faster than at other times. We are adaptable. We use technology, and it takes our brains time to adjust, but eventually, we do. Except that, for the reasons I described in this article, the new normal will have a much lower level of trust.

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