The COVID crisis has laid bare a crisis of trust.
In many Western nations there’s a small but significant minority refusing to follow distancing guidelines, wear masks or get a vaccination. Protests in recent weeks have demonstrated just how much they mistrust politicians, scientists, bureaucrats, the “mainstream media” and many of their fellow citizens.
And that’s a problem — because higher trust levels have been shown to be associated with markedly better outcomes in handling the virus. As the World Happiness Report 2021 published in March concluded, generally the higher the level of social trust, the lower the nation’s COVID-19 death rate.
So what can be done to combat this pandemic of mistrust?
Using data on national trust levels published over the past few years, my analysis suggests more than 80% of differences in trust levels between nations can be explained by just two factors: economic inequality and, to a lesser extent, perceptions of corruption.
This calculation underlines the importance of tackling the conditions in which misinformation thrives. Censorship and other blunt instruments have their place, but only treat the symptoms. To treat the cause requires promoting equality and fairness.
What ‘lost wallets’ reveal about trust
The World Happiness Report’s conclusions about the correlation between effective COVID responses and level of social trust drew on past research, including evidence from the 2019 World Risk Poll (sponsored by Lloyd’s Register Foundation).
That poll surveyed more than 150,000 people in 142 nations. One crucial question asked them to imagine losing a small bag of financial value and then say how likely it was that a stranger would return that bag. This question is a staple of social trust research, known as the “lost wallet test”.
For my analysis of the relationship between trust, inequality and corruption, I’ve mainly used another “lost wallet” study published in 2019, by University of Michigan behavioural economist Alain Cohn and colleagues in Switzerland. Their study went one better than asking people about their expectations; it actually tested levels of trustworthiness by “losing” 17,000 wallets in 355 cities across 40 nations and measuring how many came back to their “owners”.
This study broadly found actual returns to be slightly higher than expectations in the World Risk Poll. But both found consistent differences in social trust (and trustworthiness) between nations, in line with other survey results.Alberto Pezza/AP
The results from the Cohn study are therefore a good measure of both trust and trustworthiness in different countries.
Measuring the impact of inequality
According to my calculations, inequality explains two-thirds (68%) of the differences between countries in social trust levels.
The left Y axis shows the percentages of wallets returned. The bottom X axis shows the Gini coefficient: the standard measure of economic inequality, with the nations closer to 0 being more equal.
- ^ World Happiness Report 2021 (worldhappiness.report)
- ^ World Risk Poll (wrp.lrfoundation.org.uk)
- ^ by “losing” 17,000 wallets (science.sciencemag.org)
- ^ other survey results (ourworldindata.org)
- ^ OECD (www.oecd.org)
- ^ CC BY-ND (creativecommons.org)
- ^ Transparency International (www.transparency.org)
- ^ Equality: our secret weapon to fight corruption (theconversation.com)
- ^ Slate (slate.com)
- ^ The less equal we become, the less we trust science, and that's a problem (theconversation.com)
- ^ The Economist magazine (www.economist.com)
Authors: Tony Ward, Fellow in Historical Studies, The University of Melbourne