Trust and Governance: 5 insights from psychology

In an age of increasing concerns about falling trust in our government and democratic institutions, Professor Valerie Braithwaite (ANU) offers five key points about how to understand citizens’ trust in institutions through a psychological lens.

  1. People differ in capacity to trust as they differ in their capacity to engage in cooperative and social activities; but trust is socially adaptive, generally speaking, and most of us at an early age develop a good dose of it. Erik Erickson sets out trust and mistrust as our first stage of psychosocial development. We know this through folk knowledge -  good parenting means being consistent in providing care and being responsive to a baby’s needs. We learn trust through knowing our carers will look after us – they meet our needs and do not harm us.

  2. My second point is to draw attention to the work of Jenny Job and Monika Reinhart at the ANU. Trust ripples out from trust in family. Trust in family leads to trust in friends, then in turn to workplaces, neighbourhoods, local authorities and eventually more distant government institutions. In Jenny’s research, the distant institution of concern was the Australian Taxation Office (ATO).

    This work is important in challenging Putnam’s idea that trust develops through membership of ‘bridging’ organizations, or what he calls civic engagement. I am not saying that civic engagement is not important, just that trust starts earlier and for this reason every government should be concerned about the coherence and effectiveness of its family policy.

  3. The third point is that while trust ripples out like ripples from a stone thrown in a pond, the ripples can be blocked and meet resistance. In other words there can be push back by organizations or institutions: Organizations and institutions send the message themselves: ‘we can’t be trusted’. That happens through breaching trust norms.

    Babies may not be able to articulate dimensions of trustworthiness, but as language develops and life experience presents challenges we learn to articulate and talk about trust norms and identify when not to assume people and institutions are ”trustworthy”. Trust norms essentially are a shared understanding of what must be done to be considered trustworthy. They cluster around two themes: first being dependable, reliable, responsible and basically doing what you say you will do, keeping promises if you like.

    The second cluster relate to social bonding, having empathy for others, sharing the concerns of others, showing generosity of spirit toward others. All of this is about abiding by the principle “I will not hurt you, I will honour my commitments to you and support you in any way I can”. That is essentially what a relationship of trust is, be it between individuals or between organizations or between individuals and organizations.

  4. Organizations and Institutions breach trust norms, as indeed individuals do, and as a result they attract distrust, at least for a time.  Tom Tyler has captured what I would call a breach of trust norms through the concept of procedural justice, not a strictly legal understanding of procedural justice, but a psychological understanding – essentially, justice as respectful treatment, fair hearing, absence of bias and non-arbitrariness. The delivery of procedural justice can be more important than distributive justice in winning trust, on more occasions than many of us assume, although both will play a role in most situations.

  5. Breaches of trust do not cause systems to collapse: Persistently ignoring the signs that trust has been breached, however, does.  In my work I draw a distinction between resistant and dismissive defiance.

    Resistant defiance is the kind of refusal to cooperate and expression of distrust that responds well to procedural justice – apology, explanation of why the breach occurred, making amends and taking action to ensure further breaches do not occur. In other words, social processes can be changed to return to a state of honouring trust norms and expressing regret over past deviations.

    Dismissive defiance is a different beast. It is characterised by cutting oneself off from institutional constraint, rejection of trust norms, rejection of what most of us understand as a social contract with those who govern us (contracts of mutual obligation), a desire to win against the system and legal cynicism. Dismissive defiance is a serious threat to institutions. Dismissive defiance can break, change and disrupt institutions. At this point it is worth noting that sometimes institutions need to change. Without the dismissive defiance of the suffragettes, we women might still not have the vote.

 From a talk given at the Academy of Social Sciences Symposium Regenerating Integrity and Trust in Australian Institutions, November 13, 2018