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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.

Recommendation

  • 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.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    What Does the Literature Tell Us About Trust in Institutions?

  • Chapter Three

    Methodology and Data

  • Chapter Four

    Congress

  • Chapter Five

    Media Institutions

  • Chapter Six

    The Military

  • Chapter Seven

    Conclusions and Recommendations for Future Research

  • Appendix A

    Full Regression Results

  • Appendix B

    Methodology

  • Appendix C

    Survey

  • Appendix D

    Graphs and Figures: Trust in Media and Trust in Military

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

This report is part of the RAND Corporation 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.

The RAND Corporation 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.