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Lack of trust, mistrust and distrust: different trust dynamics require different strategies

Spitfire is doing a deep dive into the available social sciences to find out how civil society organizations can increase trust. Trust is essential to having a strong democracy and for civil society organizations to achieve their missions. But it seems like trust is a valuable asset that many organizations take for granted. They aren’t stewarding it well as we see more and more reports of decline, and they don’t track where they stand with trust or — from their audiences’ perspectives — why trust in their work may be declining. Many face active efforts from bad actors to put trust in jeopardy. Without proactive efforts to protect and strengthen trust, in addition to walking the talk, things can get ugly … fast.

Our assumption was that in the era of declining trust, there are evidence-based ways for civil society organizations to build and/or rebuild high social trust. We define social trust as a belief in the honesty, integrity and reliability of others supported but not guaranteed by empirical evidence — a justified faith in people. The good news is we are awash in research that does indeed offer concrete ways for organizations to do ongoing trust-building work.

To do that trust-building work, organizations must first listen to their communities. By listening, organizations learn what trust issues communities are experiencing so they understand what trust-building work they need to focus on.

There are three categories of limited trust that may be in play, and civil society organizations may be experiencing more than one at a time.

In “Trust, Mistrust and Distrust: A Gendered Perspective on Meanings and Measurements,” the authors note there is a family of trust that includes trust, mistrust and distrust. “Citrin and Stoker (2018, p. 50) define mistrust and distrust as follows: ‘mistrust reflects doubt or skepticism about the trustworthiness of the other, while distrust reflects a settled belief that the other is untrustworthy’. Bertsou (2018, p. 215).”

Organizations may experience a lack of trust with the people with whom they want to engage. If the organization is new, people may not know anything about them. If they are working on a new issue, say biomimicry, people may not know a lot about what that is.

Organizations may face mistrust. Mistrust reflects doubt. People may be skeptical and have a lot of questions. It is a generalized mistrust not aimed at a certain institution. Whole categories may experience this mistrust. That for me is bitcoin. I don’t have any concrete experience with it, but I have misgivings about it as a category, not just one institution. Importantly, these are feelings or hunches.

Organizations may have active distrust in play. Distrust is more damning. It is a settled belief that the organization is not trustworthy. It is based on personal or collective experience. Derek Griffith, Ph.D., Professor of Medicine, Health and Society at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, and his colleagues wrote on this very topic in health care settings. They note that “distrust places facts and beliefs in historical, social, or political context.” They go on to say: “To address distrust, it is critical to recognize that the suspicions, fears, and roots of distrust are logical responses to a history of inequity. It is essential to consider, understand, and address why the suspicion that underlies distrust exists.”

And this is the big takeaway we are noodling on now. We came into this project thinking that distrust and mistrust were generally bad things that civil society organizations should work to minimize or eliminate. But we have come to learn that mistrust and distrust can be rational responses to lived experiences. It is not individuals alone who need to be more trusting. Many organizations need to start with themselves first and be more trustworthy. And we will soon offer specific ways, based on our review of existing social science literature and expert interviews, how organizations can start practicing that.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation provided support for this deep dive. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s views.


This entry was posted on Monday, August 7, 2023 at 16:29 pm and is filed under Spitfire culture. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.