Trust overall is in a sharp decline

Since 1972, as part of its General Social Survey, the National Opinion Research Center has been asking a sampling of American adults three questions relating to trust in their fellow man:

• Generally speaking, would you say most people can be trusted, or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people?

• Would you say that most of the time people try to be helpful, or that they are mostly just looking out for themselves?

• Do you think most people would try to take advantage of you if they got a chance, or would they try to be fair?

A longer set of questions investigates the public trust in a wide range of social institutions, including the press, medical establishment, Congress, the presidency, the military, organized religion, the Supreme Court, etc.

A study analyzing 40 years of the survey, published this month in the journal Psychological Science, finds that trust in people and institutions is in the pits, lower than it’s ever been. Only trust in the military has escaped a deep decline.

The researchers define trust as belief in the reliability, honesty or ability of individuals or institutions, and find that it has been “lower in recent years than during the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s; the Iran hostage crisis and “national malaise” of the late 1970s and early 1980s; the height of the crime wave in the early 1990s; the Clinton impeachment of the late 1990s; the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks; and the financial crisis and recession of the late 2000s.”

The decline of trust, they observe, “is a profoundly negative trend for a democracy, a system of government predicated on the few representing the interests of the many.”

With so many lies at the highest governmental level having been revealed, with so much distrust on display in Congress on a daily basis, with corruption in business and government perceived as the norm, what will it take for Americans to renew the trust necessary to propel the country forward?

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