A note on trust

Trust is an interesting concept.  It is what people use as a basis for making quick choices and taking risks in a complex field of selections. In short, trust is a way of simplifying decision-making.  It is particularly important in societies like ours where formal institutions are not working properly.  We find ourselves relying on the trustworthiness of persons rather than on the consistency of institutions.  That is why we place a premium on the integrity of politicians rather than on the stability of the political system itself.  But what does trust mean? What function does it serve?  Can we really measure it?

In a recent survey of Pulse Asia, respondents were asked to assign trust ratings to specific individuals running for office in the 2010 elections.  As expected, the results are being used by those favored with high trust ratings as indicative of voting preferences.  Outside of their propaganda value, I do not think that such correlations can easily be made.  Trust and distrust are more complicated attitudes than voting preference.  It is not easy to measure them.

In a modern society, if someone were asked whether he/she trusts a person or not, he would probably ask: on what basis? Or as what? As an athlete, as a family man, as a public official, as a Rotarian, as a member of a church, or as any of the multiple roles he may play in society?  Modern judgments tend to be function-specific, rather than all-embracing.  In the Pulse Asia survey, it is interesting that hardly anyone asked for the criteria or basis for making a judgment on trust or distrust, as indicated by the low Don’t Know/Refusal to Answer response (0-3%) for well-known public figures.  This seems to suggest that Filipinos are comfortable about making comprehensive moral judgments.

We must qualify this impression however in the light of the pretty high percentage of the “undecided” (18-38%).  Is it possible that the category “undecided” conceals a broad range of responses that cannot be accurately summed up as mere ambivalence or neutrality?

The “undecided” about Gilbert Teodoro came up to 36% — bigger than those who trust him (32%) and those who do not trust him (31%).  These figures are extremely fascinating.  What do they communicate?  If this is ambivalence, then what might account for this ambivalence? The figures for Joseph Estrada are no less interesting: trust (33%), no trust (37%), and undecided (29%).  One cannot help wonder what complex sentiments are being collapsed under the heading “undecided”.

The same reservation may be raised with regard to the survey’s “small/no trust” ratings that are rendered as “distrust” ratings.  To my mind, there is a huge gap between “small trust”, on one hand, and “distrust”, on the other.  They should not be lumped together, as the survey does.  Having little trust in somebody is qualitatively different from distrusting that person.  The latter is an active and unequivocal decision, whereas having small trust leaves plenty of room for information that could reverse the attitude.  We can even say that the refusal to confer trust cannot automatically be taken as an expression of distrust.  Of course, when you cannot trust, it is logical to turn to distrust.  But the switch is not necessary.  As the sociologist Niklas Luhmann says in an essay on trust: “Anyone who merely refuses to confer trust restores the original complexity of the potentialities of the situation and burdens himself with it.”

If Pulse Asia’s interviewers had gone one step further by probing and asking why, the answers would have yielded for us valuable insights into the Filipino concept of trust.  My hunch is that this is not a fixed notion, that it is constantly changing, reflecting the continuing evolution of our society as it navigates the complexities of a differentiated world.  The high scores for ambivalence are particularly intriguing.  To me, they point to a growing uneasiness with blanket moral judgments.

Be that as it may, it is indicative of our culture’s personalistic orientation that preoccupation with trust and distrust still figures prominently in the campaign strategies of our politicians.  This also accounts for the importance given to personal endorsements.  In a modern society, the testimonial given by a celebrity comedian on behalf of a politician would probably carry little weight, if any.  But apparently not so in our society, where people do not seem inclined to ask why they should assign any value to a celebrity endorser’s word on a matter in which he cannot claim any special knowledge or expertise.

It would be a different matter, however, if the President were to personally endorse somebody for the presidency.  She is expected to know what she’s talking about.  Her word would carry immense weight – but only to the extent that she herself enjoys the trust of the people.  The same Pulse Asia survey indeed looks at the dismal trust ratings of President Macapagal-Arroyo (trust=11%, small/no trust= 68%, and undecided=20%), and uses these figures to explain why 52% of Filipinos “will certainly not elect a presidential candidate endorsed by President Arroyo.”

These numbers confirm that President Arroyo, who heads the administration party of which Teodoro is the standard bearer, is the biggest liability to the latter’s candidacy.  Voters are drawn to Teodoro’s qualifications and intelligence, but they seem equally repelled by his being Ms Arroyo’s candidate.  This complex attitude is nowhere more eloquently captured than in the number of people (36%) who are “undecided” about whether to trust or distrust him.