Updated: Jun 26
TRUST is continuously declining. There are multiple sources, reports, and surveys that show that. But why is it declining? It was said that the first step to solving any problem is recognizing that there is one. But the second step is to understand why the problem exists. Why is trust declining? In this article, I will use the 6 components of my trustworthiness model and show how behaviors in each one cause the decline of trustworthiness and, as a result, a decline in trust. In the end, I will also include two of the 8 laws of trust and how shifts in those cause a further decline in trust.
Trust is Declining
PEW research showed that our trust in the government declined from 77% during the Vietnam war to less than 17% during the last two administrations. Gallup claims that our trust in the media declined from 72% in 1976 to 32% in 2016, while if you take Poynter’s numbers, you will see a 39% linear decline over the last 46 years, suggesting that by 2059 this number will reach zero. Another PEW research shows that while 29% of people age 65 and above agree that “most people cannot be trusted,” 60% of millennials agree with the same statement. Twice as much! One of the scariest findings I discovered through one of my surveys is that 18.3% of people who work in companies with 2 or more employees don’t have a single person in the company they feel they can trust. That’s true for 9.6% of people who work in companies with more than 1,000 employees. Can you imagine that one in ten employees in a company with more than 1,000 employees cannot find a single person in the company they can trust?
Trust is the product of your trustability (willingness to trust other people) and their trustworthiness. Using the six components of my trustworthiness model explains that trust is declining because of a decline in every one of those six components.
Decline in Competence
In 2001, when I was a board member of the Wi-Fi Alliance, we had a meeting in Helsinki. That was the first time we brought a broadband Internet connection to a room and shared it with all meeting participants via a Wi-Fi access point. That was also the first time I realized that my brain couldn’t really multitask, and everything I did on my computer came at the expense of paying attention to the meeting and the speaker. The same is happening in almost every classroom, especially in higher education. Students are not as concentrated on what the instructor is teaching anymore, and as a result, they know less.
There is also a new vicious cycle in higher education. Students anonymously rate their professors. Based on those ratings, the university decides whether to keep the professor or not. Websites such as RateMyProfessors.com contribute to this cycle. Students might give low ratings to a professor. As a result, fewer students will sign up for his/her classes, and if not enough students sign up, the class will be canceled, and the professors (especially true for adjunct professors) will be terminated.
And what do students care about? For the most part—finish school, get good grades, and not work too hard. To keep their jobs, professors must sacrifice rigor to get high student ratings. Because professors have to eat, too.
This is true in K-12 education, as well. In 2018, A Florida teacher was fired for giving zeroes to students who didn't turn in their homework. School policy says that the lowest grade teachers can give is 50 percent.
Finally, schools offer trophies merely for participation to keep students happy and not “trigger” them. The words “great job!” are used very loosely, and we say them to just about anyone without really meaning it.
As a result of all the above, students who join the workforce are not as knowledgeable, capable of operating at the highest levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy pyramid of cognitive abilities, believe that everything they do is good, and are unwilling to work hard. Because of that—the overall level of competence is declining.
Our political polarization continues to escalate. We are becoming not only polarized but also binary. Every topic seems to be one-dimensional with only two options. We operate more in a win-lose, zero-sum-game manner rather than strive for win-win and address all concerns. We also change priorities for things that we disagree on. It almost becomes unforgivable not to have a strong opinion on every topic (try not to have a strong opinion on guns, abortion, immigration, healthcare, elections, etc., and see where it gets you.)
Social media acts as an echo chamber, giving you more of what you want to hear than what you probably should. You get echoes of your existing opinions rather than arguments to the contrary. The former increases interaction while the latter reduces it, and interaction is how social media companies make money.
As this polarization increases, we find less common ground with other people, and our personality compatibility component declines, and so does trust.
Equality is declining and also given higher visibility. Racial and gender pay inequality are only two examples. Another example is the CEO pay disparity, which went from 21:1 in 1965 to 61:1 in 1989, and 351:1 in 2020. How can you trust the company’s leaders if the pay asymmetry is so great? Can you trust them to have similar motivations as you?
We are bombarded by inappropriate marketing techniques. Companies promise value they don’t intend to deliver, hiding behind the small print and a long “CYA” agreement that you click “accept” without reading. Americans received over 54 billion spam calls (25% of all calls) and 55.4 billion spam texts (37% of all texts) in 2020. Authors claim to be “bestselling authors” based on heavily discounting the price of their books, categorizing them in irrelevant “unoccupied” categories, asking their friends to buy their books within a certain time, and claiming bestselling status even when, in reality, they sell fewer than 10 copies of the book per year.
It gets worse: we are also under attack by cybercrime. The identity Theft Resource Center indicated that the number of data breaches went from 614 cases in 2013 to 1,529 in 2017 and exposed more than 2.2 billion victims in 2018. According to the Aite group, 47% of Americans experienced identity theft in 2020 alone, suffering $712.4 billion in losses, up 42% from only a year earlier.
Finally, political correctness and conflict avoidance became so pervasive that you can’t trust that the other person says what they mean instead of what they are pressured to say, out of fear of being sued or terminated from their jobs. Apologies are made not because those who did wrong feel they should apologize but rather because of the extrinsic consequences of not apologizing.
A 2017 study using the World Values Survey database showed that individualism increased 12% over 51 years in 78 countries, and that number was 60-69% for English-speaking countries. In other words: we believe that the world revolves around us much more than we did before, and we act that way.
Time & Intimacy
Robin Dunbar studies the correlation between the volume of our brain and the number of relationships we can keep in it. He put the number at 150 “casual friends.” However, we have more relationships than merely casual friends. With technology and social media, we build connections with many more than 150 people. Still, as a result, the quality of those connections is much less intense and thus contributes much less to building trust with those people. Ask yourself—how many people do you know, and how many can you really trust? Simply spreading the amount of time among all those people reduces the amount of time you can spend with each of them and, as a result, dramatically lengthen the amount of time required to build trust with each one. Technology also forces us to communicate less in-person and more virtually, using social media posts, emails, and instant messages. That reduced level of intimacy, too, lengthens the time it takes to build trusting relationships.
While trust can be developed directly between two people, it can also be developed through third parties. As my eighth law of trust suggests, trust is transferrable. You may trust someone simply because someone else you already trust trusts them. However, the pervasiveness of fake reviews hurts the effectiveness of trust transferability, and there is a shift from relying on the opinions of a few people you know (and trust) well to relying on many people you don’t know personally. We shift from qualitative to quantitative reliance on the transferability of trust.
As I suggested at the beginning of this article, trust is the product of one’s trustability (willingness to trust other people in general) and the other person’s trustworthiness. While the other person can only control their own trustworthiness, they have a cumulative impact on the first person’s trustability. The more you are exposed to less trustworthy people, the less you are willing to trust people in general. All the practices and trends described in this article cause not only a decline in trustworthiness but also a decline in our trustability. Even when trustworthiness is high, our willingness to trust others is low.
Dr. Yoram Solomon is a trust expert, author of The Book of Trust, host of The Trust Show podcast, a two-time TEDx speaker, and facilitator of the Trust Habits workshop that helps building trust in organizations.