Polls, pundits and man-on-the-street anecdotes suggest that trust in government and its institutions is low.
New research from the University of Nebraska Public Policy Center suggests that a key to building the faith in institutions could be in making citizens feel they have better knowledge about those institutions – regardless if they actually do or not.
Lisa Pytlik Zillig, a research associate professor at the center, said a recent study from Nebraska that appears in the online journal PLOS One addressed issues regarding how citizens’ personalities and knowledge of institutions relate to the development of institutional trust.
“How does trust form over time? What drives trust? Do the factors driving trust change as people gain knowledge? These were questions we considered,” she said. “We thought if you don’t know a lot about an institution, then your trust in it is all based on your personality: Are you a ‘trusting person’ or not?”
Over 15 months, the researchers worked with two groups of participants: One that they regularly exposed to very specific information about a single type of government entity – in this case, water regulatory agencies. The second group was exposed to information about a different government agency. Participants in both groups said they felt as though they knew almost nothing about the water agencies.
Both groups showed increasing trust in the water agencies over time. However, the experimental group also reported feeling like they knew more about the water regulatory agencies. And, as the first group felt its knowledge about those water regulatory agencies increasing, their trust in those specific agencies was less likely to be affected by their overall trust in government.
“They began to distinguish their trust in the water agencies from their trust or lack of trust in other government agencies,” Pytlik Zillig said.
But, the study further found a person’s “dispositional trust” – whether someone is already inclined to have or lack faith in people in general – still played a large role in one’s level of trust in the water agencies.
All of the study’s participants were asked how trusting they considered themselves, how trusting they were of a variety of governmental institutions, and how much they felt they knew about the specific organizations in the study.
Participants were quizzed on what they learned, which also yielded a surprise. Participants said they felt they were learning about certain institutions, but test results suggested that they hadn’t actually learned as much as they said they felt.
The findings could help institutions interested in building and improving trust, said Brian Bornstein, a co-author of the study and professor of psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Institutions should communicate effectively and build public familiarity. Also, based on this study and other research, Bornstein said, being viewed as an institution that listens to the public and treats people fairly could increase trust.
But in the end, Pytlik Zillig said, the study showed more information may not overcome the personality influences of those who receive it. If a citizen is generally untrusting, he or she will likely continue to be more skeptical than more trusting citizens, the researchers said.