Trust and politics

The Psychology of Interpersonal Trust by Ken J. Rotenberg, published by Routledge, is out now. Here, we share a timely chapter…

Inside out (monologue written by Ken J. Rotenberg)

The throng of people and media was all around me. A new public building was being opened and I was the guest of honour. Yes, guest of honour . . . how ironic. I could not feel more uncomfortable or dishonourable. Standing in the beating sun, staring into the lenses of the mass of cameras, and seeing all of the people watching my each and every move. I thought to myself, how does the public really view this staged performance? I shuttered to think . . . I began to laugh inside, realizing that I had made a pun. This emotion made it slightly easier to sustain the smile I had during this boring ceremony. Although I had always dreamed of being a politician – my father was, and so was his father before him – I never dreamed it would be like this. One fraudulent experience after another. One false handshake, one false smile, and one feigned appreciation of others’ speeches . . . one after another, after another. This occasion represented one further step on a long and lonely treacherous path.

Basic trust in politicians and government is regarded as fundamental to democracy in Western countries (see Warren, 1999, 2004). From a social capital perspective, trust in government promotes peoples’ political involvement among other forms of civic activities (see Chapter 1). Nevertheless, political cynicism (Leigh, 2002) has emerged with some strength within Western countries. The politician in the monologue shows a form of political cynicism and regards himself as essentially insincere and ultimately untrustworthy. He wonders if the public shares that view. When addressing the topic of trust and politics, it is important to recognize (as with many topics regarding trust) that it is multilevelled. Drawing upon the two target dimensions of BDT framework (see Chapter 1), the multiple levels of trust and politics reflect variations from dimensions of specificity (specific to general) and familiarity (somewhat familiar to very familiar). For example, some political scholars have concluded that citizens’ trust in Congress is at an all-time low but that citizens’ trust in their own congressman or congresswoman is quite strong – a more specific and familiar target (see Fisher, van Heerde, & Tucker, 2010; Parker & Parker, 1993).Trust in a leader, such as a president or prime minister, is different from trust in the leader’s political party – a more general and unfamiliar target. People’s trust in government as a system is different from their trust in a currently elected government – a more specific and familiar target (see Schiffman, Thelen, & Sherman, 2010).Aside from being multilevelled, it is important to highlight that there are problems in assessing trust in politics because of the reliance on the term “trust” and abstract terms in the measures. This chapter will review the research on trust and politics with those distinctions and concerns in mind. The chapter addresses a range of subtopics including trust in the system of government, trust in politicians, and factors contributing to the trustworthiness of politicians.The applied focus of the chapter is on Brexit.

Trust, government, and democracy

The distinction between people’s trust in government form (i.e., as a democracy) and existing government is an important one to make. Guided by that distinction, Schiffman et al. (2010) examined three specific dimensions of political trust: trust in government form, political cynicism, and incumbent trust. The trust in government form dimension is confidence in democracy, at least in the United States (e.g., the corresponding item “There is much about our form of government to be proud of ” (p. 376)).The political cynicism dimension is an underlying sense of distrust in government, political parties, political candidates, or publicly elected officeholders. The incumbent trust dimension is trust in elected officeholder(s) (e.g., the corresponding item “You can generally trust the people who run our government to do what is right” (p. 377)). The questionnaires administered to the participants included measures of the three dimensions of political trust and Rotter’s interpersonal trust scale (ITS; presented in Chapter 15). The questionnaires were distributed to a random sample of 4,000 American households; 233 of questionnaires were completed. The findings showed that interpersonal trust (i.e., ITS) predicted incumbent trust (strongly), trust in form of government (modestly), and cynicism (marginally). The findings supported the conclusion that peoples’ dispositions to trust others (as shown by the ITS) accounted for their different forms of trust in politics. Because this is a cross-sectional study, however, the observed relations are statistical associations and methodologically yield little evidence for causal relations between the variables.

The relation between political cynicism and the engagement in politics was examined by Martin (2010). The researchers utilized the data gathered from the 2007 Australian Election Study which had included items assessing citizens’ trust in government. The study showed that the majority of the public expresses an untrusting attitude towards government, with 58% of respondents saying the government usually or sometimes looks after itself. By contrast, only 43% of the public agreed that government can usually or sometimes be trusted to do the right thing. In addition, only 15% of respondents expressed the most trusting attitude (i.e., that the government can usually be trusted to do the right thing). The findings were interpreted as showing that the Australian public demonstrated political cynicism. The study confirmed, though, that trust in politicians was (1) positively associated with positive attitudes towards democracy, (2) positively associated with voting when it is not compulsory, and (3) negatively associated with voicing frustration through challenging forms of activities (e.g., engaging in protests). These findings support the notion that the public’s trust in the government contributes to democracy by promoting positive engagement in democratic activities (e.g., voting).

Economics, foreign policy, and changes in trust in the government

According to a broad range of studies, citizens’ trust in government has been declining from the mid-1960s until the present day (Blind, 2006).This decline appears to be a global phenomenon (see Cheng, Bynner,Wiggins, & Schoon, 2012).The findings from the study by Hetherington and Rudolph (2008) have documented those changes in political trust and for the factors accounting for them. These researchers carried out a time series analysis from 1976 to 2006 on the factors that affected trust in the US government. Trust in the government was assessed by the individuals’ reports that “the government in Washington will do what is right” (see Chapter 2). Overall, the researchers reported that trust in government declined over time. It was found, though, that political trust increased when the public viewed inter- national issues as vital (e.g., terrorism, national security, war, and the Middle East). Furthermore, it was found that political trust decreased when the public thought that there were problems with the economy (i.e., a period of depression). Those effects of economic concern were found to be asymmetric, in that relatively few people regard the economy as good, even in good times. According to the authors, the positive effects of a good economy on trust in the government were relatively weak, thus they failed to offset the effects of bad economies, and that inequity accounted for the observed decline in trust in government.

Trust in politicians

Trust in politicians is regarded as multidimensional. Fisher et al. (2010) posited that there are three different types of trust in politicians: strategic trust, moral trust, and deliberative trust. The strategic trust type pertains to the individual’s perception that the politician has (a) complementary/shared interests with the individual himself/ herself, (b) the required knowledge, skills, and capacities, and (c) relevant past experience. This type of trust is shown in an individual’s reliance on professional accreditation and fairness practices of institutions. Moral trust is the socially acquired tendency for individuals to believe that others are trustworthy by sharing similar fundamental values comprising good intentions and moral character. Regarding the deliberative type of trust, the individual first decides whether others involved in a decision-making process are sufficiently trustworthy to justify depending on their promises and engaging in co-operative action. This type of trust figures most commonly in second-order consensus involving voting, bargaining, and compromise as part of political action.

In the investigation, Fisher et al. (2010) used the data gathered from YouGov’s weekly online British Omnibus survey (n = 1,753; July 2007) and the British Election Study Continual Monitoring Panel (n = 1,018; March 2009). The survey included 13 questions designed to assess each type of trust judgment including (1) on balance, politicians deliver on their promises (strategic trust); (2) politicians share the same goals and values as me (moral trust); and (3) parties represent supporters, not funders (deliberative trust).The participants also reported how much trust they had in parties and politicians on an 11-point scale. In support of their formulations, the researchers found that items assessing each of the different types of trust (as identified above) statistically predicted the individuals’ rating of how much they trusted the government.

Trustworthiness of politicians

The issue of citizens’ trust in politicians prompts the question on the factors that promote (or detract) from the trustworthiness of politicians. The issue of trustworthiness of politicians became the focus of debate regarding the 2016 US presidential race. In surveys, the public was asked to report whether they believed that Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton was more honest and trustworthy. The polls tracking this question showed that there was a shift from 42% to 40% on May 19, 2016, in favour of Hillary Clinton to 38% to 46% in favour of Donald Trump on October 31, 2016 (see Clement & Guskin, 2016; Post-ABC Tracking Poll, October 28–31, 2016).The shift in perceived trustworthiness drew the attention of writers such as Kolbert (2016).This writer observed that a substantial number of Donald Trump’s communications were identified as being factually incorrect and therefore it was a surprise that he was increasingly viewed as trustworthy. As one account of the unexpected pattern, Kolbert (2016) observed Hillary Clinton’s talks were scripted and planned. They lacked the apparent spontaneity and thus genuineness of Tump’s communications. In support of Kolbert (2016) account, it has been found that planned communication (be it a truth or lie) is viewed as deceptive (DePaulo, Lanier, & Davis, 1983).The issue of trustworthiness in politicians has continued during Donald Trump’s presidency. Questions of his trustworthiness have emerged because of allegations of collusion with Russia during the election and allegations of inappropriate use of campaign funds, among others (see, 2017). These are allegations, but their high profile in the news media highlights the issue of the trustworthiness of political leaders.

A primary role of politicians is to persuade his or her constituents of the validity of a given message (policy) and to ultimately vote for him or her. The purpose of the communication is clear-cut, but it can be viewed as self-serving and thus relatively untrustworthy. Combs and Keller (2010) examined this aspect of trust in politicians. These researchers proposed that one way of undermining those effects is for the politician to present their communication as contrary to their self-interest as well as compatible with the views of their opponents. The study by Combs and Keller (2010) investigated the hypothesis that a politician who engages in communications contrary to his or her self-interest violates expectations – in a positive fashion – and that promotes perceptions of his or her trustworthiness. In the first of three studies, 92 university undergraduates (27 male, 65 female) read an attack ad generated by a fictional candidate (John Dixon) which was critical of his opponent, David Hunter. The ad suggested that Hunter was a liar and that his policies would damage the state’s economy. The participants read one of three responses by David Hunter, which rejected the allegations, but either (1) attacked the moral values of his opponent (counterattack), (2) praised his own economic policies (praised self), or (3) praised his opponent’s policies, which were stated as agreeing with his (praised opponent). It was found that the candidate was judged as more trustworthy (i.e., trustworthy, integrity, and honesty) and more likely to receive votes when he had responded by praising the opponent than the counterattack communication. It was found that perceived trustworthiness was responsible, in part, for the greater voting for the candidate when he had praised his opponent. The other studies carried out by the researchers provided support for the conclusion that those effects were due to the violation of expectation. There are other accounts of the findings, though. For example, the politician (David Hunter) agreed with his opponent when he praised him, which yielded a form of consensus (see the KAT findings with children in Chapter 1), and thus contributed to trustworthiness of the eco- nomic policy and the politician himself. This interpretation is consistent with the practice of the US Congress of bringing together members of different parties to make up a non-partisan committee so that they can establish trustworthy policies on sensitive issues.


The world of politics has been fraught with scandals from early history. Scandals are certainly found in contemporary times and are fundamental to the successfulness of the news media. There was the Watergate scandal that began with the installation of bugging equipment at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate hotel and office complex on May 28, 1971, and ended with the resignation of President Richard Nixon on August 9, 1974.There was the scandal involving Jeremy Thorpe, who was leader of the Liberal Party in the UK from 1967 until 1976.The scandal pertained to his alleged plot to murder Norman Scott, who was allegedly his homosexual lover. He was the first British politician to stand trial for murder. He was acquitted of the murder at the Old Bailey, which entailed one of the most notorious judgments in the court’s history.

There is evidence that such scandals contribute to decreases in trust in government, albeit modestly. Hetherington and Rudolph (2008) found that government scandals (e.g., the Clinton impeachment proceedings) predicted declines in trust in government across time. The effects were not as substantial, though, as the effects of economic and international issues on trust in government. There is some evidence that government scandals have negative effects on trust in government in countries such as Finland (see Isotalus & Almonkari, 2014).

Application of the BDT framework

It is commonplace to notice whether politicians keep the promises they made to their constituents, are sincere and honest in their communications, and maintain confidentiality of information when required to do so. These observation prompted my colleague and me (Rotenberg & Bierbrauer, in preparation) to draw upon the BDT framework in order to examine trust in politicians. We constructed the Trust in Politicians Scale (TPOS), which is composed of scenarios that depict politicians potentially displaying the three bases of trust: reliability, emotional, and honesty. The following are examples of items in the scale: (1) “A party makes the promise of introducing new social benefits for single parents: How likely is it that the party would retract from this promise?” (reliability); (2) “A person conveys personal information to a politician which requires confidentiality. How likely is it that the information conveyed will not be kept confidential?” (emotional); and (3) “Politicians are required to keep records of their spending. To what extent are these accurate?” (honesty). In our study, 95 undergraduates were administered our new developed TPOS, the ITS (Rotter, 1967, presented in Chapter 15 of that volume), and reported their willingness to vote for the Labour Party and the Conservative Party in the UK. The findings showed that the TPOS was composed of the three types/bases of trust beliefs: reliability, emotional, and honesty. As expected, it was found that generalized trust beliefs (i.e., the ITS) were associated with each of the three types of trust beliefs in politicians. With generalized trust beliefs statistically controlled, it was found that honesty trust beliefs in politicians were associated with the willingness to vote for the Labour Party. Unexpectedly, there were negative associations between willingness to vote for the Conservative Party and both emotional trust beliefs in politicians and generalized trust beliefs. Those were inclined to vote for the Conservative Party tended to hold low trust beliefs, notably in maintaining confidentiality of information. The findings are preliminary, but they high- light the utility of the BDT framework for examining trust beliefs in politicians.

Applied focus

Trust and Brexit

A public referendum was held in the UK on June 23, 2016. UK citizens were posed with a decision whether the UK should remain or leave the European Union (EU). The majority of UK citizens (52%) voted to leave which has been called Brexit (“British exit”). Brexit has dominated the political landscape in the UK for over two years and (at the time of writing this book) seems like it will do so for many years to come. My interest in Brexit has centred on the challenges to trust in politicians arising from the political campaigns and conflicts surrounding Brexit (Rotenberg, 2016).

Ever since the very beginning of the EU referendum campaign, there have been questions about the honesty of the information presented by both sides of the Brexit debate. Since the referendum, it has been revealed that many of the groups actively involved in the campaign (the official Brexit campaign group, Leave.EU, the Remain campaign of the Liberal Democrats, and official Remain campaign) have been fined for breaching electoral law for campaign funding (see Rotenberg, 2016). In my own writing, I highlighted that leaving the EU violated promised co-operation and would undermine trust between the EU and UK. Subsequent political events have supported those expectations.

There have been calls for a second referendum in the UK about remaining or leaving the EU. This has prompted considerable public and political debate. In response to that call, Prime Minister Theresa May dismissed a referendum on Brexit deal by stating: “To ask the question all over again would be a gross betrayal of our democracy – and a betrayal of that trust” (Rotenberg, 2018). The issue raised by Theresa May is an important one. What are the consequences of violations of pub- lic votes on the democratic system in Western countries? The impact of a second referendum on the public’s support for democracy in the UK political system is unknown. It may have limited impact, though, because of the unique status of referendums in the UK. There are some broader issues to ponder. As noted, research has shown that trust in government is declining and presumably political cynicism is increasing in Western countries (and in other countries). In addition, as noted, there are heightened concerns about the trustworthiness of political leaders. Will the declines and challenges to trust in politicians and government lead to a demise of democracy in Western countries?

- Ken J. Rotenberg is Professor in Psychology at Keele University.

Find out more about the book, published by Routledge. 

See also 'Do you trust the police?' from another of Ken's books, The Psychology of Trust.


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