Deconstructing distrust

Apart from their “approval/disapproval” of the job performance of top public officials and government institutions, Pulse Asia asks its informants to estimate the amount of “trust and distrust” they have for these officials and institutions. The correlation between these two ratings is remarkably high, suggesting that perhaps, in the Filipino mind, there is no meaningful difference between approval and trust.

But, there is. Approval and disapproval are functional judgments. In the Pulse Asia survey, they refer to a person’s performance in a given role or position, not to the entire person or institution. Trust and distrust, on the other hand, are moral judgments that refer not to a specific role, but to a person’s whole character.

The specification of functional roles—such as one finds in the question on job performance—is a feature of modern society. One may perform poorly in a given assignment at a particular time, but that does not mean he can’t be trusted in another job all the time.

In contrast, moral judgments—as exemplified by the question on trust/distrust—are more common in premodern society. The judgment they involve is emotional, rather than technical-rational.

This is not to say that judgments of trustworthiness are irrational or less rational than those given for work performance. Indeed, both modes are rational in that they help people make decisions in a given environment. For example, people may find it preferable to buy from a “suki” (a trusted seller) rather than go through the tedious process of bidding out or canvassing for the best terms available. In a simple world, people do make decisions on the basis of trust. But, the more complex the environment becomes—i.e., the more choices there are—the more it is difficult to merely rely on a “suki” relationship.

It is interesting that, by being able to give out different scores for job performance and trust, Pulse Asia’s informants showed that they were capable of distinguishing the two items from one another. But, it is remarkable that while the approval ratings they gave for job performance were uniformly higher than the trust ratings they handed out, the reverse is true for disapproval and distrust ratings.

Distrust ratings tended to outweigh disapproval scores for job performance.

President Aquino’s approval rating in the November 2014 survey stood at 59 percent nationwide. His trust rating was three percentage points lower. On the other hand, his disapproval rating was at 11 percent, but his distrust rating was at 13 percent. This pattern is found in all the ratings of the top public officials.

A judgment on the job-performance question seems to me to presume a level of cognitive awareness on the part of the informant, whereas the trust/distrust question is only a matter of “gut feel.” All that the question asks of the informants is that they sum up their feelings about a person or institution: How much do you trust this person?

Here’s how the question is actually phrased: “Nais sana naming tanungin kayo tungkol sa pagtitiwala ninyo sa ilang mga tao sa ating lipunan. Sa pamamagitan po ng board na ito (Show rating board), maaari bang pakisabi ninyo kung gaano kalaki o kaliit ang inyong pagtitiwala kay [Personality]? Masasabi ba ninyo na ito ay Malaking-malaki, Malaki, Maaaring malaki at maaaring maliit, Maliit, o Maliit na maliit/Wala?”

This is not a question that a modern individual will find easy to respond to. But, it definitely makes more sense to ask Filipinos how much they trust their public officials than to ask them what they think of their job performance. The reason, as I see it, is that in our culture, we have yet to learn to disaggregate roles. For this reason, I would assign greater value to trust ratings than to job-performance ratings.

This brings me to Vice President Jejomar Binay’s trust scores. Pulse Asia’s November 2014 Ulat ng Bayan national survey shows Binay to be the second most trusted among the nation’s top five officials, after the President. This is a far cry from his past ratings showing him consistently to be at the top. But, the reversal in the Filipino public’s estimation of the Vice President is perhaps more sharply captured by his “distrust” ratings for November 2014. At a record 26 percent, Binay’s distrust rating eclipses everyone else’s. The same pattern is mirrored by his disapproval rating, which, at 23 percent, far exceeds those of the other top officials.

VP Binay and his allies, of course, would rather highlight his trust and approval ratings. At 44 and 45 percent, respectively, they are still high, notwithstanding their recent steep decline. Understandably, Binay graciously thanks the Filipino people for their continuing trust. Indeed, the same survey shows that he remains the choice for president of 26 percent of all respondents if elections were to be held today. Still, I am sure he deeply worries if he can sustain these numbers till the 2016 presidential election.

To me, the only numbers worth watching are those recorded for distrust. In all past surveys before September 2014, distrust for Binay nationwide never went beyond 4 percent. In September, it rose to 11 percent; from there, it climbed up to 26 percent last month—the highest for any incumbent top public official.

Distrust is not merely lack of trust. It is rather the polar opposite of trust, and fulfills the same function of resolving complexity. Like trust, it needs but little information to confirm itself. As an active emotion, distrust defines its object as an enemy to be fought. I think that, for the first time, Vice President Binay’s distrust rating has cast him in the negative role of a threat to be resisted.

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