Trust That Can Be Trusted
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Trust That Can Be Trusted

THERE IS SOCIAL TRUST AND INSTITUTIONAL TRUST. AND IF THE FORMER IS MORE STABLE TO EXTERNAL SHOCKS, THE LATTER IS MORE SENSITIVE TO THEM. THE TWO CAN ALSO DIVERGE, AS DURING THE PANDEMIC, WHEN MISTRUST IN US INSTITUTIONS TOWARDS EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT CORRESPONDED TO AN INCREASE IN SOCIAL TRUST

by Arnstein Aassve, Full Professor at the Department of Social and Political Sciences

Does people’s trust change during turbulent times? Certainly, with a pandemic, soaring cost of living, and geopolitical tensions, that would be reasonable. But when making judgements about trust during turbulent times, one should keep in mind that trust comes in two versions: social trust (also termed generalized trust), and, institutional trust. The first refers to how people trust other people in their society without necessarily knowing them personally. The second refers to the confidence that people have in various institutions under the assumption that they will have had some exposure or knowledge of those institutions. These two trust measures behave very differently. Social trust differs hugely across countries, but is rather stable over time. Trust in institutions also differ across countries, but are way more volatile over time. This shouldn’t be surprising, as the two measures capture different concepts. Social trust is a strong proxy of the social cohesion of a society, whereas institutional (dis)trust relates to (dis)content with respect to the institutions that people have to deal with. In other words, in turbulent times, institutional trust changes a great deal – whereas social trust remains stable.

But institutional trust does not always change in the direction you might expect. For instance, during the very first lockdown of the COVID pandemic, institutional trust was at a record high – including Italy. In fact, as Giuseppe Conte, the Italian prime minister at the time, ordered a complete lockdown of pretty much all public services, institutional trust shot up. This is a well-documented phenomenon known as the rally-around-the-flag syndrome. In face of crisis or war, there tends to be an immediate increase in government support. There are numerous examples. For instance, ratings of George W. Bush skyrocketed immediately after the 9/11 attacks in New York. However, this effect is typically short-lived. Data from the Working, Living and COVID-19 (WLC), a five round longitudinal survey implemented by EUROFOUND for all 27 EU countries during the pandemic demonstrates a universal increase in governmental support during the first lockdown, which then declined sharply with the subsequent waves of the pandemic.
There are other interesting facets of institutional trust. For instance, not all institutions are the same obviously. One would think that trust in the government might be different from the trust you might have in the health system, for instance, or your trust in the judicial system or the European parliament for that matter. Intuitively one would expect trust to differ across various kinds of institutions. But it turns out that levels of trust in these institutions are extremely correlated. That is, in periods where trust in the government is low, trust tends to be low fir the other kinds of institutions, too. This says a great deal about how citizens think about institutions: if you have low trust in one type of institution, then you tend to distrust all other institutions, too.

What about social trust? This measure is a lot less sensitive to external shocks, but there is also here a correlation with institutional trust. On average, whenever social trust is strong, there is also higher trust in institutions. However, in face of shared threats, such as the pandemic, social trust and institutional trust may in fact diverge. A recent three-wave panel survey implemented in the US during the COVID-19 crisis leading up to the last presidential elections, shows that negative perceptions of pandemic management brought about a decline in institutional trust that was followed by a parallel increase in social trust. This feature was particularly pronounced among government supporters (i.e. Republicans), who, confronted with COVID-19 challenges, experienced a substantial erosion of institutional trust. At the same time, the same government supporters experienced a notable rise in social trust. As government supporters attributed more responsibility for the crisis to their political leader, institutional trust was supplanted by social trust. Disenchanted voters, feeling let down by institutions, sought support in society instead.
 

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