“There is a crisis of trust in society!” says the media.
“Trust in politics is in crisis!” say politicians.
“Trust in business is at crisis point!” say the PR companies.
“Trust as a concept is in crisis!” say people trying to sell business management books.

It’s no wonder, therefore, that under this bombardment of negativity, many people would say that yes, trust probably is in crisis.

But what is it that brings these groups together, aside from the fact they are all trying to sell you something (be it a product, a service or themselves)? A good answer is that all of them are far more distrusted than trusted by the general public on a global level, according to our Global Veracity Index. It begs the question, why we are listening to them on anything, let alone on whether trust, a concept so fundamental to society and business, is somehow in crisis?

This is topical because after more than a year of research, we at Ipsos MORI (a blend of pollsters and scientists) are strongly of the opinion that trust is a problem for many kinds of institutions, but that the idea that it is a recent crisis is false. Instead, we say that the problems started decades ago and it has just taken everyone a while to take notice.

Let’s examine some of these trends in detail, starting with trust in business. A crucial caveat is that long-term trends in trust are rare, which forces us to look at trends for other, similar concepts such as confidence in business as a proxy for trust in business.

Gallup has been running its US ‘Confidence in ‘big business’’ tracker since 1973. Over the period 1973-2008 confidence in ‘big business’ fluctuated from a high of 34% in 1975 to a low of 16% in 2009, with year-on-year changes rarely more than a couple of points. Over the same period, the proportion of people who say they have very little or no confidence in business has fluctuated similarly. Crucially, in 2001 those with low confidence in business started to dominate, and while they have outnumbered their more positive counterparts ever since, at the same time trust in ‘big business’ is now higher today than a decade ago.

Not much sign of a current crisis so far. So, let’s look at the European Values survey data. Overall, it is a similar trend to the US – from a high in the early 90s to a more negative position today. In Germany, confidence in major businesses nearly halved between the early 90s and the late 2000s, with others such as France and Italy having similar trends.
This looks a lot like public confidence in business, and we can infer trust, shifted significantly in the 90s, but in the last decade or so it has been largely static. Some crisis.

I think we can agree that if the media are right about anything it’s that there is a crisis of trust in public attitudes towards Government and politics. Trust in MPs and elected officials is low everywhere, and this has been the case for a while. A closer look at the survey data suggests that trust in Government and politics has been low for years.

In the US the story is, again, one of long-term decline. In the 1950s and 60s a majority said they trusted the Government in Washington most of the time, but this took a sharp drop in the 1970s to just one in three. Since then it has risen and fallen twice, but for the last decade it has been consistently low and largely static.

However, other trends are far less clear. Looking at the World Values Survey, more countries actually saw a rise or no change in confidence in their Government between the 1990s and 2010s than saw a fall.

In Europe, according to Eurobarometer, of the 18 countries surveyed between 2001 and 2018, while eight showed a fall in trust in Government overall, another seven showed no change or even a rise. Europe, overall, showed some signs of recovery from the low in public trust in Government in the post-2010 period, although this hides individual country variation.
We would argue that this clearly illustrates that the idea of a global crisis of trust in politics is false. That is not to say that the public anywhere actually fully trust their politicians or Government institutions, because they clearly often don’t, but this changed years ago and, in some places, things are improving.

While we are under no illusion that when pitted against the mass ranks of the media, politicians and PR companies, Ipsos MORI alone will not change the narrative on trust and convince the world the situation is not quite so bleak, we do hope that we have sowed the seed of doubt and people will begin to question the accepted narrative a little more because, under a little scrutiny, it begins to fall apart. That does not mean we take a naïve, optimistic view, rather we think a more in-depth understanding means that we can focus on more specific actions that will help make a big difference.

For further insight, read ‘Trust: the Truth?’ at thinks.ipsos-mori.com/trust-the-truth