SALT LAKE CITY — For most of history, human beings regarded people they didn't know as a potential threat. Now we get into cars with perfect strangers, sleep on their couches, and entrust our young children to them.
The easy answer is that technology has enabled ride-sharing, couch-surfing and online marketplaces to buy and sell almost anything from anywhere and anyone.
But the change goes deeper than that. We're witnessing a fundamental change in trust, the foundation of human relationships, sociologists and other experts on trust say.
Trust in institutions, such as government and corporations, has sharply declined in recent decades. One recent survey, the Edelman Trust Barometer, reports that America has just seen the steepest drop in trust levels in the 18 years of the global poll. Meanwhile, Pew Research Center's most recent polling on trust found that only 18 percent of Americans trust their government to consistently do the right thing. Sixty years ago, about three-quarters of Americans did.
But even as our trust in government wanes, we are trusting strangers — the people our mothers warned us about — more than ever.
Author Rachel Botsman, who teaches at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, calls this growing confidence in unfamiliar people "distributed trust," and it's a radical departure from old forms of trust that derived from power and knowledge, or from close relationships between similar people.
Old trust flowed vertically, to authority and experts, Botsman says, while distributed trust flows horizontally.
It flows between people like Marcy Vogler, a mom of three in Salt Lake City, and the babysitters she hires through an online child-care business. And it flows between Greg Pack, a Utah contractor, and the strangers he lets sleep in his treehouse and cabin near Park City via the home-sharing business Airbnb.
The changes in trust, Botsman says, amount to a revolution more disruptive than the technology that enables it. They are making life easier for some families, particularly those who are mobile and technologically savvy, and they are helping dissimilar people forge warm and useful connections.
But this shift in alliances doesn't simply offset the problems presented by the erosion of trust in our institutions. Rebuilding this trust will require a widespread commitment to truth, respect for privacy, and good behavior on a national scale, experts say.
'Crisis of trust'
Stephen M.R. Covey, author of “The Speed of Trust,” defines trust with one word: confidence. Conversely, “The opposite of trust — distrust — is suspicion,” Covey says.
When trust exists, it’s practically invisible; we don’t think about it until we lose faith in a person or institution. But trust is involved in almost every action we take.
We couldn’t mail a letter, put our children on a school bus, order food at a restaurant or fall asleep at night, unless we were confident that the mail carrier, bus driver, cook and house builder did their jobs well.
According to Botsman, the earliest form of trust was local — trust we shared with our families, neighbors and communities. Later came institutional trust — trusting in governments, religious groups, schools and businesses to capably and ethically meet our collective needs.
While institutional trust is rising in some countries — most notably China — this form of trust has eroded sharply in the U.S. in recent years, according to polling by Edelman and Pew Research, among others.
Edelman, which has been tracking trust globally for 18 years, said in January that the U.S. had seen the largest-ever drop in trust among the general population. Even in a subgroup called "the informed public" — college-educated Americans who are voracious consumers of news and public policy — institutional distrust is rampant, causing America to drop to last place (below Russian and South Africa) among 28 countries in the survey.
For the reason, look to Washington, the Edelman report said.
“The collapse of trust in the U.S. is driven by a staggering lack of faith in government, which fell 14 points to 33 percent among the general population, and 30 points to 33 percent among the informed public,” the report said.
Trust in businesses, the media, and non-governmental organizations declined as well, from 55 percent in 2017 to 50 percent in 2018, prompting the firm's president and CEO Richard Edelman to say, “The United States is enduring an unprecedented crisis of trust.”
Even when looking at Utah alone, the numbers aren't encouraging.
According to a report recently released by the Joint Economic Committee of Congress, Utah fares at or near the top in every measure of social capital but one: institutional health.
In that category, which assesses Americans' confidence in their institutions, Utah ranked 30th in the nation — comfortably far from last, but conspicuously lower than the state's other rankings, such as being No. 1 in the areas of family unity and social support.
Utah’s poor showing in institutional health in the study was also notable because other states that fared well overall also fared well in institutional health.
Minnesota was second overall in social capital, and first in institutional health; Wisconsin was third overall in social capital, and second in institutional health.
Similarly, the states that performed poorly overall were also at the bottom of institutional health, in the report, entitled "The Geography of Social Capital in America."
Louisiana, 51st among the 50 states and Washington, D.C., was 48th in institutional health; Nevada, 50th overall, was 50th in institutional health; and New Mexico, 49th overall, was 51st in institutional health.
Utah fares poorly in institutional health for two reasons, according to Scott Winship, the project director for the Joint Economic Committee: low voting rates in the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections, and the lowest number of people in the nation who said they trust media to do what is right.
The state was 23rd in the nation in its confidence in public schools, however, and third in the nation for trusting corporations to do what is right.
Debra Oaks Coe, owner of a real-estate company in Salt Lake City, and a member of Mormon Women for Ethical Government, believes the polarization of American has contributed to the loss of faith in institutions, which are generally seen as faceless behemoths, even though they are established and run by people.
“In general, many institutions have become too much of an us-versus-them mentality," Coe said.
"That can make strong connections for those that strongly agree and make them feel powerful because they feel like they have the whole institution of people with them. However, I think that also creates counterfeit connections and actually makes people feel less stable and confident,” Coe said.
'Aren't you scared?'
Even as a majority of Americans are telling pollsters how much they distrust the government, big banks and the media, they are enthusiastically finding babysitters on the internet, getting into cars with strangers, and sleeping in their extra rooms.
Vogler had to look for a babysitter online when she moved to Salt Lake City and didn’t know anyone she could ask for a reference. She used an online business called UrbanSitter which connects parents and sitters, promising clients access to "your community's most trusted babysitters and nannies."
“I’ve had people say, ‘Aren’t you scared to leave your child with a stranger?’ and I understand that, but I think most people are pretty safe,” she said, adding that she always meets with sitters before leaving her 4-year-old in their care.
“I also understand that they’re putting themselves in a situation that might be perceived as unsafe, coming to my home to babysit,” Vogler said.
Vogler is also reassured by the ratings given to sitters by other people who’ve used them; public feedback is a major component of the success of stranger-to-stranger transactions, from online sellers like eBay to ride-sharing services like Lyft. Vogler has used five different sitters without any problems, she said.
That's also the experience of Pack, who uses Airbnb to rent out a 200-square-foot treehouse he built on his property about 12 miles northeast of Park City. He'd never used the service before offering his property as a rental, and said he was leery at first.
But it's worked so well that Pack has since used Airbnb for his own travel in France, Italy and Florida, and that the experience of trusting strangers to take care of his property has caused him to be more respectful of other people's property when traveling.
“It’s amazing how much people really do clean up after themselves and really take care of my place, and it’s made me think about that. Even when I go to a hotel, I’m much more conscious about leaving the place nice,” Pack said.
Issues for families
The rise of distributed trust is a boon for some families, but Stephanie Coontz, director of research and public education at the Council on Contemporary Families, notes that not all families have benefited from the trend. Ride-sharing, for example, makes life easier for technologically savvy professionals at the expense of many taxi drivers.
“It’s been very problematic for the working-class families that used to get living wages doing these things. I think we need to take that into account, particularly when we think about the polarization of politics in this country,” said Coontz, a historian of marriage and family life, and the author of “Marriage: A History” among other books.
Coontz said that the spurning of institutions (which she believes reflects problems caused by the misuse of institutions by unethical individuals for private gain) has increased pressure on marriage and family to meet all of an individual's needs. This can lead to problems because having a dense web of social networks makes us happier and healthier than trying to have all our needs met in just one place.
That may be why countries that rank the highest in happiness, such as Switzerland and Sweden, rank high not only in family happiness, but in their satisfaction with their country's institutions, she said.
When people have high levels of trust in a wide range of institutions — for example, a religious organization, civic groups, and local school districts and governments — they are more likely to be engaged with groups and activities in their communities.
When they don’t trust institutions, people retreat into their homes, and their general happiness and life satisfaction becomes much more dependent on their family.
“For example, people’s general life satisfaction is much more dependent on the happiness of their marriage today than it was 40 years ago. Which is fine when things are going well. But when family relationships undergo stress, the sense of disappointment and betrayal is greater than it has ever been in the past,” she said.
“Family relations are warmer, more intimate, less violent, more fair, than ever before in history overall, but the downside is, we don’t expect any equivalent reciprocity in terms of our relationships with government institutions, with community institutions, even with local schools.
"There's a tradeoff," Coontz said. “I don’t think we’ve paid enough attention to the extent at which this unraveling of trust in institutions is putting pressure on private relationships."
Covey's "Speed of Trust," published in 2006, is now a brand that coaches businesses all over the world on developing and retaining trust. (Covey is the son of the late Stephen R. Covey of "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People" fame.)
David Kasperson, a director in FranklinCovey’s Speed of Trust division, said that a dozen years after the book’s publication, “it’s even more relevant now.”
The financial crisis of 2008 set off a tsunami of distrust in business and government, and every month seems to bring a new crisis of trust in the corporate world. From Target’s data breach to Chipotle’s food poisoning to Volkswagen’s cover-up of emissions problems, the past decade has shown that even the most respected businesses are vulnerable to losing the trust of consumers.
But these and other cases have shown how trust can be rebuilt — “not in all cases, but in most cases,” Kasperson said, and the process of rebuilding trust is the same for institutions as it is for individuals and businesses: Behave better.
“Stephen R. Covey had a saying, ‘You can’t talk yourself out of problem you behaved yourself into,'” he said.
To that, his son added, “But you can behave yourself out of a problem you behaved yourself into.”
Johnson & Johnson’s rapid recovery after seven people died from cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules in 1982 is one example. Domino’s Pizza admitting that its pizza wasn’t very good in 2010 is another.
Domino’s revamped its recipe and adopted a strategy of transparency, sharing negative reviews with the public and even changing its store layouts so that customers could see their pizzas being made. Transparency is a driver of trust, Kasperson said.
“People tend not to trust what they can’t see,” he said.
Domino’s stock, which sank below $3 per share in 2008, hovers around $250 per share today.
“People want to trust other people. That’s why people get so upset, so mad, when there is a violation of that trust. And we want organizations to succeed, especially our institutions because they serve a larger, overall purpose,” Kasperson said.9 comments on this story
“Nobody wants government to fail. But we also want accountability from those who are serving us. Institutions, just like people, can behave their way into better trust.”
The Edelman report also offered suggestions for trust-building, and called for an all-hands-on-deck approach to quell what the agency calls "a strong sense of fear, uncertainty and disillusionment" among Americans.
"No one institution will succeed in rebuilding trust on its own," the report said. "Every institution must contribute to truth."