Cover: The Drivers of Institutional Trust and Distrust

The Drivers of Institutional Trust and Distrust

Exploring Components of Trustworthiness

Published Nov 17, 2020

by Jennifer Kavanagh, Katherine Grace Carman, Maria DeYoreo, Nathan Chandler, Lynn E. Davis


Download eBook for Free

FormatFile SizeNotes
PDF file 1.8 MB

Use Adobe Acrobat Reader version 10 or higher for the best experience.


Purchase Print Copy

 Format Price
Add to Cart Paperback240 pages $41.50

Research Questions

  1. How has trust been researched before?
  2. How do different institutions rank in terms of trustworthiness?
  3. By what criteria do people assess the trustworthiness of institutions?
  4. How do personal characteristics affect whether one trusts a given institution?

Trust in many institutions, such as government and media, has declined in the past two decades. Although such trends are well documented, they are not well understood. The study described in this report presents a new framework for assessing institutional trust and understanding the individual characteristics and institutional attributes that affect trust. Analysis is based on a survey of 1,008 respondents conducted through the RAND Corporation's American Life Panel in April 2018. The study makes several key contributions to the field of institutional trust research. First, researchers used a scale that distinguishes between trust and distrust, thus allowing a different understanding of trust. Second, the analysis is a first step toward understanding why people trust institutions. The framework allows exploration of components of trustworthiness—i.e., the institutional attributes that people say they consider important to levels of trust (e.g., integrity, competence). The researchers also analyzed relationships between components of trustworthiness and the individual characteristics of those expressing the level of trust. Third, the survey featured questions about multiple institutions, allowing researchers to make comparisons across institutions. The research provides insights into individual characteristics and institutional attributes associated with institutional trust. This study is a "first cut" at a complicated concept and at exploring what is needed to rebuild institutional trust.

Key Findings

Most previous studies focus on trust but disregard active distrust

  • The authors of this report developed a ten-point scale that ranges from high trust (10) through lack of trust or distrust (5) to active distrust (0).

Distrust in media and government institutions is widespread

  • Social media and Congress registered the lowest levels of trust among respondents.
  • Only two institutions—local newspapers and the military—registered a level of trust that was above the midpoint of the scale.
  • Levels of trust, most notably for media institutions, varied depending on respondents' individual characteristics.

Respondents prioritized components of trustworthiness differently for different institutions

  • Five dimensions—competence, integrity, performance, accuracy, and relevance of information provided—were the most-reported drivers of trust in institutions among respondents.
  • Perceived competence and integrity of representatives mattered most in assessments of trust in Congress; accuracy and relevance of information provided were most consistently associated with trust in media. Competence, performance, and accuracy of information provided were most relevant to reported trust in the military.

Researchers examined how various respondent characteristics tied to perceptions of trustworthiness

  • When such characteristics as gender, age, education, partisanship, and employment were factored into analysis, the result indicate that different groups of people named different components as driving their perceptions of trustworthiness of different institutions.
  • Individuals who reported active distrust in the institutions examined had different demographic and other characteristics (and named different components of trustworthiness as relevant to their attitudes) from other respondents who reported no trust or distrust or higher levels of trust.


  • The results presented are intended as a first attempt at understanding how components of trust are related to trust in key institutions. There are several limitations to this research that should be considered and addressed in future research.

Funding for this research was provided by gifts from RAND supporters and income from operations.

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

This document and trademark(s) contained herein are protected by law. This representation of RAND intellectual property is provided for noncommercial use only. Unauthorized posting of this publication online is prohibited; linking directly to this product page is encouraged. Permission is required from RAND to reproduce, or reuse in another form, any of its research documents for commercial purposes. For information on reprint and reuse permissions, please visit

RAND is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. RAND's publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its research clients and sponsors.