In government we trust? It’s complicated

There may be more to trusting governments than mere likeability. 

Previous research into political trust has more or less assumed that being happy with a government was akin to trusting it. However, the authors of a new study published in the journal PLOS One say that paradigm is incomplete.

Borrowing from organisational psychology, a team led by Joe Hamm from Michigan State University, US, found a vulnerability-focused definition of trust – that is, as a willingness to be vulnerable to the actions of another – helps provide clarity, compared to using standard measures for political trust. 

Specifically, they say, three drivers feed into evaluating political trustworthiness: whether or not the government has the ability to do its job, the benevolence to care about its citizens, and the integrity to do the right thing. The concepts of trust and trustworthiness help refine and supplement current theories of political trust. 

The researchers surveyed around 500 people about their perceptions of performance of the US federal government and its values, and how comfortable they were allowing it to have power over everyday activities.

“Unlike the trust surveys used for decades, our questions focused specifically on the characteristics of government and how those characteristics impacted one’s comfort in allowing the government to have power over parts of their day-to-day lives,” explains Hamm.

“Most people don’t ‘like’ politicians that don’t represent their political group … if you focus on protecting vulnerability, though, you could see how someone in a different party could feel protected by the other party.”

People seem to evaluate the performance of government in order to determine its level of trustworthiness, which in turn informs the extent to which they feel it can be trusted, the authors explain.

“It’s not just that ‘good’ performance leads to trust,” Hamm adds. “It’s that good performance makes us think government is worthy of being trusted.”

Marc Wilson from the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, who was not involved in the research, agrees that Hamm’s measures of trust and trustworthiness do a “consistently (slightly) better job of predicting issue attitudes and evaluations”. However, he still has questions.

“Is trust/trustworthiness a product of our feelings about parties and issues, or part of their foundation?” he asks.

 “And what about multi-party systems? How do we work out which member of a coalition is responsible for shifts in political successes (and ‘failures’)?”

Hamm agrees further research is needed, and that examining trust in a political context is particularly important given the structural power differential. The power we give governments means they can make decisions we don’t like, or even actively persecute us, he explains.

“In today’s climate of political polarisation (at least in the US), there is real harm people feel from having government act to advance values different from our own,” he says.

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