The Global Crisis In Trust

Trust is the cornerstone of any successful, functioning society. Without it, corruption, apathy, and exploitation reign; institutions across both the public and private sectors become ineffectual, as people have difficulty working together or relying on one another’s expertise or knowledge.Unfortunately, the results of the 2015 Edelman Trust Barometer suggest that a lack of trust — and the subsequent consequences of it — will become one of the most pressing issues of the 21st century.

Half the countries surveyed were classified as “distruster”, in which the overall level of trust among informed members of the public is below 50 percent. This distrust is directed towards all institutions in society — government, business, news media, and even non-government organizations (such as think tanks, charities, civil society groups, etc.)

Many of the countries with a high rate of distrust include stable and robust democracies such as Ireland, Japan, Sweden, Spain, and the U.K. Unsurprisingly, each of these countries is facing some sort of national crisis or other, ranging from pervasive economic stagnation to difficulty responding to the migrant crisis.

Other developed and free societies such as the Australia, Canada, France, Germany, and the U.S. were “neutral” — that is, with roughly equal numbers of people trustful and distrustful towards institutions — but still below the global average. These countries are often politically polarized, with citizens split on a range of national issues.

Perhaps most interesting is the minority countries with a high level of public trust, which include autocracies such as the United Arab Emirates and China, semi-democracies like Singapore, new and/or fragile democracies like Indonesia (and arguably India), and highly prosperous countries such as the Netherlands.

These results go to show that trust is a fickle thing, contingent on a range of factors beyond whether a society if free or democratic (which has long been considered the primary prerequisite for building social cohesion and public trust). Some autocracies manage to have a lot of trust directed towards their governments (or more likely their private sector institutions), others do not; some robust democracies continue to earn the trust of citizens, others continue to disappoint (regardless of their success elsewhere).

The Economist offers some additional insights:

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Is Trust the Key to Sweden’s Success?

Sweden has long been hailed for its near-utopian balance between prosperity, progressive civil liberties, and economic competitiveness. Indeed, it’s one of the few countries in the world that manages to provide a generous, tax-funded welfare system while nonetheless promoting high economic growth and business freedom (a combination of policies that are seen as impossible to many Americans). Continue reading

The Biological Origins of Trust

Through the fields of neurology, biology, endocrinology (the study of hormones), and even genetics, we’re finding increasing evidence for a natural origin to human behavior and thought: certain developments in one’s genes, hormones, brain structures, neural network, and other physiological factors are found to alter or otherwise effect how we are and what we do.

This has vast implications about the way we treat criminals – who may have deterministic factors behind their criminality – or how we behave with one another: if someone can’t help but act a certain way, perhaps we need to approach them in a more forgiving and understanding manner, rather than place the blame on their lack of will. If this biological determinism were to gain widespread acceptance over several generations, it would completely alter every facet of society: economics, politics, personal relationships, law, and so on.

For this post, however, I’ll limit this broad and complex topic to one element: oxytocin and its relationship to trust. Oxytocin is a hormone found only in mammals that is increasingly being found to play a vast role in human behavior, including empathy, pair bonding, maternal love, and – of course – trust. It is for these reasons that it’s often known as the “love hormone” or the “moral molecule,” and why many scientists believe that morality does indeed have a physical origin.

The video below is from a TED Talks conference that expands on this topic. The speaker, Paul Zak, is noted for his part in exploring the significance of oxytocin; at the same time, however, there have been some questions raised about the accuracy of methodology. Still, he makes some pretty interesting points, and at the very least he’s raising more interest into this young but promising field of study.

As the video notes, while it may seem grim to imagine our morality as being contingent on external factors somewhat beyond our control, there is a lot to be hopeful about: it appears to suggest that there is actually an inborn capacity to be moral and ethical. Despite the dim view most of us have of human nature – rapacious, greedy, self-interested, dishonest – our biology displays an equal capability for being loving and altruistic, even to strangers.

Human nature is a very complex thing, derived from both nature and nurture. There is a lot of gray when it comes to discerning the how and why of human behavior and morality. But the more we’re learning about this exciting development, the sooner we can begin to adjust our social and organizational paradigms to better suit one another.