A Pandemic of Mistrust
The most significant breaches of commitments are typically the ones you make to yourself. If you can't trust yourself to be reliable, how can you expect others to do so?
The COVID-19 vaccine is a miracle. Developed in just days and tested in under a year – a record time for vaccine – it has proven to be remarkably safe and effective. Today, more than 56 million Americans have been fully vaccinated, and over 3.1 million people are being vaccinated each day.
Surprisingly though, recent polls report that 30% of Americans say they won't get vaccinated, threatening the goal of herd immunity and our ability to contain the overall spread of the virus and its variants. In some states, thousands of free vaccines remain sitting on shelves. While there are many explanations offered for this, I believe the principal reason is a systemic decline in trust. The most recent 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer shows levels of trust within the U.S. and globally at all-time lows, following a particularly sharp decline this past year. The report reveals that the majority of people believe that government officials, business leaders, and journalists are purposely trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false. Trust takes a long time to build but can rapidly erode. It is absolutely essential to the healthy functioning of society. And we may be on the verge of a total collapse.
What are we to do? To be sure, government officials need to make the truth, not political expediency, the number one priority. While the Trump administration's final year was a disaster in this respect, leaders of all political persuasions have contributed to the pandemic of mistrust. Even in the last few days, the Biden administration, which has been committed to restoring public confidence, has persisted in repeating known factual inaccuracies concerning the Georgia lawmakers’ attempt to pass laws restricting voting access. This is simply unacceptable. Beyond government, business leaders must assume the responsibility for using their large platforms to rebuild trust. According to the Edelman report, business has emerged as the most trusted institution and the only one deemed ethical and competent by a majority of respondents.
But the biggest responsibility lies with you and me. Each day, we make dozens of commitments to ourselves and to those around us. Trust builds or erodes according to the degree to which we honor our commitments. If you take a look at the commitments you make, you would be shocked at how many you fail to honor. Most are likely minor, but each failure to honor your word adds up. Over time, the aggregate effect of these failures diminishes trust. And the most significant breaches of commitments are typically the ones you make to yourself. If you can't trust yourself to be reliable, how can you expect others to do so?
The global project to restore and rebuild trust begins with each of us. Whether you are a local official, a business leader, or the leader of yourself, you have a responsibility to be truthful and honor your word. I don't think it is too much to say that very well-being of society depends on it.
If you’re interested in learning more about this particular formulation of integrity, I recommend this introductory article by Michael Jensen. A lot of my writing is derivative of the work of Werner Erhard, Michael Jensen, and Steve Zaffron on this subject.
Here’s the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer. It’s worth reading it in its entirety.
David Brooks wrote an excellent piece on the decline of social trust last year in The Atlantic. It’s worth revisiting.