Many things we hold to be true, we can neither discover nor prove ourselves. Claims about the world often rely on specialised or esoteric knowledge, on information that we cannot access, or on experiences that we have not had. We often rely on other people and institutions – experts, governments, journalists, our friends and family – to decide what is true and false, to make decisions and take actions.
We believe secondhand knowledge because of who provides it. When we believe people and institutions are capable and able sources, and also ones acting with credibility and integrity, we ‘trust’ them. Trust is one of the most important concepts for explaining each of our intellectual and moral worlds, and our relationship with the people, institutions, technologies and processes that surround and shape our lives.
When well placed, trust is a social good, foundational to a healthy democracy, and vitally necessary for human beings to work confidently with one another. Holding trust is an important asset for governments, organisations and individuals. Reasonable scepticism and criticism of institutions and individuals is important: to hold the powerful to account, to challenge conventions, to produce new solutions, and to enable genuine choice. However, when mistrust is high and generalised, it is harmful. It increases friction in society, makes interactions between people more difficult, and undermines the capacity of government to benefit the people it serves.
Measuring trust is important to understand society, to know how messages are understood, how organisations and processes are interacted with, and why individually and collectively we make the choices that we do. It is an important part of sociology, and a vital requirement of informed public policy.