I read an intriguing story in Citizen Renaissance the other day about the upward trend in trust for institutions in the UK, but not in the US.
The shift of Trust in institutions from West to East continues, as the emerging economies of Brazil, China and India begin to translate their economic strength and authority into tangible Trust numbers. Meanwhile, the US – now officially a sceptical nation – dips to a new Trust low, pretty much alongside Russia. Together with the UK and Ireland, the US sees a (not unexpected) freefall in Trust for its Banking Sector since 2008 (with Ireland scoring an all-time Barometer low of 6% in this regard).
Overall, NGOs score well and ‘most trusted’ of the four major institutions of Business, Government, NGOs and Media. Of these, once again, Media is the big loser.
Trust builds when people make positive assessments of the way other individuals or the institutions they stand for keep their promises. When we have no personal experiences to guide us, we can rely only on the voices of society, telling us stories about used car salesmen and the like. When promises are broken, for any reason, trust takes a nosedive. At the same time, the potential for angry responses to disappointments and serious interruptions in the flow of everyday life goes up. The two are inversely correlated. Loss of trust is a sign of broken promises in the past. Anger shows up when a broken promise in the present triggers memories of those unsatisfying moments in the past. The target of the anger is generally clueless as to why the party blew up, much less as to how to cope with it.
Whole societies can rise up in anger under the worst of conditions, as we are seeing in Egypt right now. Without condoning Mubarak’s response in any way, he may be asking himself, after a protracted period of disconnect with people whom he asked for their trust, why they are so angry, and is probably at a loss to find an effective way to quell the anger. Whatever he promises now will not be heard as legitimate. From a purely ontological perspective of anger and its causes, not a political one, Mubarak hasn’t a chance of remaining in office except by a strategy of repression.
There’s a warning here for the US, although by no means is our situation the same as in Egypt. There is a danger in invoking the American Dream as a promise of a life that all citizens can attain. Failure to keep the promise, an outcome that is virtually certain in the short span of electoral terms of political leaders and parties, creates anger that can be assuaged only by blaming the one who made the promise or is the symbol of the institution that did. There is a strange irony at work here. The most articulate leaders are more at risk than the mumblers and bumblers. Their promises are easily lost.
The Citizen Renaissance story adds some support to my continuing rant about the dark side of many social media that work on creating friends, like Facebook. Trust among users of these shows a downward trend in the polls on which the story is based.
A further trend, first noted in 2009 and 2010, sees a dip in peer-to-peer trust, as friendship takes a bit of a hit. This is a consequence maybe of The Zuckerburg Effect – an exponential rise in the number of (on-line) friends creating more distance (and, ergo, less trust) in the core friendship itself.
I have argued that this unintended consequence has lasting effects on particularly the young users who are still developing their innermost sense of trust. They do not appear to be developing the strong ties that friendship can provide whenever others are needed to rescue someone from a bad place. Although I cannot point to explicit data, I expect that this failing will play out as lack of trust in social institutions, as these young technophiles grow older and enter the flow of public life more fully.
We learn and embody our general assessments about trust through experience. The ties that Facebook and other similar social media create are “weak” because they do not engender trust and empathy, two critical qualities in “strong’ ties of friendship. It is difficult, if not impossible, to feel empathetic toward someone out of view. Putting yourself in another’s place to understand what is going on over there and then respond, defines empathy. It is, perhaps, impossible to be empathetic when only hearing the words, but not observing the body. Weak ties are not effective builders of trust because they do not serve as primary conduits for the exchange of requests and promises, the two linguistic prerequisites for the generation and destruction of trust. A flourishing society simply cannot be build other than on a strong foundation of trust.