Faith, trust, and pixie dust.

A new research report - Trust: The Truth? - came out last month from Ipsos.

I was lucky enough to attend the launch event. There was no red carpet, per se, but there were lots of awkward jokes beforehand about the bad news to come. Yet, when the report was unveiled, it wasn’t as bad as we expected.

Ipsos presented the conclusion - and this is a terrible paraphrase of 200-odd pages of research - that the trust crisis was “chronic, not acute”. They reassured us that we may feel awful, but that’s not an objectively sharp awfulness. Rather, things have been steadily awfullating for years, decades even.

Furthermore, the data shows that for some sectors, industries, or individuals, trust is actually kind of fine. Doctors, for example, are still alright. As are dead people, for the most part. We are a big fan of trusting those leaders that aren’t still alive to disappoint us. And for those sectors or industries that aren’t fine… Well, they’ve always kind of sucked. Sorry, politicians and advertising agencies. It may feel like we’re in a trust crisis, but we aren’t. Or, if we are, it has been an incremental one. There’s no more a crisis now than in the past.

Ipsos then handed over to external experts - journalists and a professor - for comment. And said comment was, more or less universally: Nyah. Which, as you might expect, made for an interesting panel: a “data vs insight” smackdown as the numbers were attacked from various anecdotal angles by talented experts.

I found Kenneth Cukier, from The Economist, particularly interesting. He began his rebuttal by polling the audience. How many of us thought we were in a unique crisis of trust before the presentation? (All hands up.) And how many of us still think that, even after hearing the presentation? (Hands stay up.) Cukier proceeded to muse, out loud, why it was that our perspectives were so different from the data: what is it that our perceptions bring (or lack), or what it is the data sees (or misses).

First: the degree of the lie has changed.

There’s been a definitional change as social norms have shifted. Fifty years ago, if a researcher asks you if you trust the President, you think about whether or not you trust him to deliver a piece of policy. In 2019, you’re wondering about whether or not you trust him to not conspire with foreign powers, funnel millions to his own businesses, pander to white nationalists, and commit sex crimes. The question is the same, but the context is entirely different. Cukier argues that - as Arendt did - there’s always been lying in politics. But, he added, what has changed is the degree of the lie: now it is ‘shameless and glorified’. Politicians knowingly commit, embrace, and even repeat untruths. How can data capture the transformation of social norms?

Second: perhaps we crossed a threshold.

Even if trust is ‘merely’ in gradual decline, the erosion of trust may have now gone far enough that’ve crossed a point of no return. A bit like global warning: have we taken that tiny shift too far, and made an irrevocable change to the world?

Third: we could be victims of the ‘biased truth’.

Cukier cited Gladwell’s theory that we are naturally inclined to ‘favourably believe’ other people. This may explain why personal perceptional differs so wildly from mass data. This also puts society in a constant state of tension: individual-to-individual favourability opposed by distrust of all institutions and groups. Or not. But, if this is the case, Cukier foresaw this progressing apocalyptically - to, as he phrased, a new ‘Middle Ages’, where trust is placed solely in individuals, and we no longer hold to institutions of any form.

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To Cukier’s insight, I add one theory of my own.

‘Trust’ is one of those cases where relativity matters. Say you’re polling people on their perception of shoe prices. It would be a bit odd if everyone thought that shoes were at an all-time-level of super-duper-expensive, while, as a matter of objective fact, the cost of shoes was actually rising more slowly than inflation, etc. (I have no idea if this is true; that would actually be a pretty fascinating study.)

But in the case of ‘trust’, the perspective is the answer. If people think they’re living in a crisis, they’re living in a crisis. Crisis is not objective. People measure their lived experience not against a global, quantified mean, but against what they believe should be happening.

If you look for a global and urgent crisis, it may be hard to find. But, as individuals, we don’t live our lives from from that rarefied perspective. Our lived experience is finite: we experience a decline in trust in a local and immediate way.

All in all - a fascinating report. Get stuck in.

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For planners (sup, y’all), the most useful part of the presentation was an analysis of what we talk about when we talk about ‘trust’. Ipsos break trust down into eight different qualities:

  • Reliability

  • Competence

  • Responsibility

  • Transparency

  • Leadership

  • Intentions

  • Shared values

  • Won’t take advantage

All eight individual factors correlate against ‘trust’ in a statistically significant way.

This would make a lovely Powerpoint chart for when you’re trying to convince your skeezy tech client to stop taking DNA samples from their customers’ laundry.

These diverse factors also help demonstrate a greater point when it comes to planning a campaign: make your objectives specific. (The SMART framework has other components, but this email is long enough already.)

We’ve all had briefs based around making x brand the “most trusted brand” in the y sector. But, “trust” qua trust, as Ipsos’ Ben Page was keen to point out, makes a lousy KPI. The eight factors make for much better briefs. Demonstrating leadership is a different campaign than highlighting transparency. Proving competence looks very different from showcasing good intentions. Each of these approaches are more specific, more measurable, and - frankly - more creatively interesting than ‘be trusted’.

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What? You’re still reading?