Edelman’s 2021 Trust Barometer: The past, present, and future of truth and trust within institutions


What you'll learn on this podcast episode

7 to 10 people fear the weaponization of misinformation, but what's changed in the last year or so is assumptions of who we think the weaponizers of fake news and misinformation largely are.” —Dr. David M. Bersoff

Trust has been a leading concern throughout institutions, globally. So what are the overarching trends around trust? What actions can institutions take to gain back trust? How can you build and regain trust once it’s been lost? In this week’s episode of the Principled Podcast, we’re sharing a past conversation we had with Dr. David M. Bersoff, Head of Global Thought Leadership Research at Edelman Data and Intelligence. David takes us through the findings from Edelman’s Trust Barometer, an annual trust and credibility survey that looks at what it means for organizations to build trust with people. This topic aligns closely with LRN’s recent Benchmark of Ethical Culture report, which measures trust and other dimensions of ethical culture. You can learn more about the report on our blog.

Principled Podcast shownotes

  • [1:07] Why is a business found to be the most trusted institution globally?
  • [3:51] What are some overarching trends on trust founded in the 2021 Trust Barometer Report?
  • [14:59] How has COVID affected people’s trust in societal institutions?
  • [18:00] What can be done to reduce the trust chasm? What are some ways to get people together again on basic facts?
  • [22:03] What are the differences between trusts between a country and region?

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Guest: David M. Bersoff, Ph.D.


David M. Bersoff oversees Edelman’s global Thought Leadership research including the annual Trust Barometer and Brand Trust studies. In this capacity, he is responsible for questionnaire development, leading all data analysis and insight gleaning activities, and developing new frameworks for understanding trust, credibility, and consumer-brand relationships.

Prior to joining Edelman Intelligence, Dr. Bersoff spent 18 years as a consumer insights and marketing strategy consultant at The Futures Company. In his last 5 years with the organization, he served as its Chief Insights Officer and was a member of its global board of directors.

Prior to entering the consulting world, David spent 12 years engaged in social science research at various Ivy League institutions, including 4 years as an assistant professor of social psychology and research methodology at the University of Pennsylvania.


Principled Podcast transcription

Intro: Welcome to The Principled Podcast, brought to you by LRN. The Principled Podcast brings together the collective wisdom on ethics, business and compliance, transformative stories of leadership and inspiring workplace culture. Listen in to discover valuable strategies from our community of business leaders and workplace change makers.

Host: Hello everyone. And welcome to another episode of LRNs Principled Podcast. My name is Ben DiPietro. I'm the editor of LRNs E&C Pulse Newsletter. You can find that on our website lrn.com. Click the resources tab and click newsletter, please subscribe, we'd love to have you. With me today is Dr. David M. Bersoff. He's the Head of Global Thought Leadership Research at Edelman Data and Intelligence, and you would know them better as the people who put out the trust barometer for the last 20 years, and they have a new, a very interesting one out in 2021. And so we welcome David. And how are you, David? Thanks for taking time with us today.

Dr. David M. Bersoff: Pleasure to be here. Thank you for having me.

Host: In 2021 Edelman found business to be the most trusted institution globally. Why is that? And have the other institutions faltered leaving business standing alone, or has business simply outpaced media, NGOs, and government and building trust among people?

Dr. David M. Bersoff: All four institutions that you just mentioned actually are more trusted now than they were when we first started tracking trust among the general population back in 2012, but two things have conspired to put business in the number one position. The first is that it's actually experienced some good double digit growth in trust over the past 10 years or so, unlike media and NGOs, which have gone up but gone up relatively little and while the government has also gone up, which is surprising to some, started from the much lower position. So at the end of the day here, we find business is number one, and you can really understand what that looks like and why that is when you divide trust into its two constituent parts. So there is perceptions of ability or competence and there's perceptions of ethics or fairness. And what we see is that despite the fact that as I said, all the institutions have enjoyed some trust gains since 2012, government and media are generally seen as not terribly competent and not terribly ethical. NGOs are seen as ethical, but not terribly competent.

Business is the only institution that's really seen as both. And that's actually a bit of a change from last year. Last year business was seen as competent, but not terribly ethical, this year they're the only institution that's really seen as both. And so it's not as if the other institutions have fallen away, it's more that business has really come through more than the other institutions, particularly I think in the context of the pandemic. And if you look at the institutions across the last 10 years, you could see government has in many places, ground to a halt due to excessive partisanship, media has in many ways, turned into assess pool of ideological warfare. NGOs just haven't been seen as stepping up in these times of crisis. And so in many ways, business has been the most reliable agent of positive change in this country. And I think that's why it's rewarded with this trusted status.

Host: You mentioned you've been tracking a lot of this since 2012. What have been the three biggest overarching trends report has found since then? And any thoughts on what you see coming ahead in the next three to five years that might bring with us and how will AI impact this whole notion of truth and trust?

Dr. David M. Bersoff: Yeah, let me pull that apart a little bit. Actually I want to cheat a little and call out four trends rather than three. Let me start with number one, the worsening trust gap between the more affluent top 15% of the population and everybody else. So the gap, the trust gap, in institutions between the more affluent and everybody else was 16 points this year, which is tied for the record. But what's even more telling is that back in 2012, there's 22 countries that we can track all the way back to 2012, back in 2012, only seven out of 22 countries had a double digit trust gap between the top 50% of the population and everybody else. In 2021, 21 out of our 22 countries had that double digit trust gap. And I think part of the reason why we're seeing that trust gap broadening across more markets is because of what's known as that case shape recovery.

So we're in the middle of this pandemic and what we're finding is that certain people are recovering more quickly than others. Some people at least, from a financial point of view are almost whole, if not even a little better off than they were while other parts of the population are stagnating or even doing worse than they were a year ago. And part of the problem or the issue of why this is important is that if you have two segments of the population and there are different trajectories, so one is looking towards a future that looks good. The other is looking towards the future that doesn't look so good, suddenly you have two big constituents in the population that are not equally invested either in change or in protecting the status quo. And that's destabilizing when you have a society that can't decide whether it needs to change this dichotomy, the sense in which I have more of a investment in keeping things the way they are, and you have more of an investment in changing. That's the wedge that pop opens the door on populism.

That's why we're seeing populism cropping up in countries around the world, because there is this disconnect where some people are differentially benefiting from what's happening from the status quo. Others are seeing themselves left out, left behind and are anxious for change. That's the first one. The second one is the change in flow of influence and information from a top down dynamic to a more horizontal pattern. So these days, and this wasn't always true, you're more likely to be convinced of something by your peers or by people you know than by experts and authority figures. And this, in my opinion, has actually been a debt negative for trust and stability and has hastened trend number three, which is one of the big themes this year in our study, which is the breakdown of the information ecosystem.

So we're in the midst of an infodemic, which has become so extreme. We describe the world as being in a state of information bankruptcy, basically our information ecosystem, it's structurally unsound, it's built on a flawed business model and it's unable to meet its obligations. Now, this idea that the information ecosystem has been compromised by bad actors isn't really new. We've had a question in the survey for several years now about, do you worry about fake news and false information being used as a weapon? And globally, we find that about seven to 10 people do fear the weaponization of misinformation, but what's changed in the last year or so is assumptions or who we think the weaponizers of fake news and misinformation largely are. I think two, three, four years ago, people were thinking about Eastern European troll farms or cyber terrorists or Asian bot shops.

And what's been made apparent by the pandemic, the fear around local issues such as the election in the US is that these days misinformation is largely a home grown phenomenon. And as a reflection of this, and this is one of these data points that really just have me shaking my head. More people today are worried that their own government leaders are purposely misleading them than they are, that other countries are contaminating our media with false news. So this whole questioning of the media inputs, of the information ecosystem, trust in media, trust in information and data, this is huge. And it's really come perse forth this year as a major problem. And then the fourth trend that I'll mention is this anointing of business. So we've been talking for years, that business needs to become engaged in social issues, they need to be citizens of society, they need to look beyond their bottom line. That's been talked about under the context of things like purpose or CSR, but what we're really seeing is the evolution of that into something much more extreme.

And what we're seeing this year and last year a little bit, is that people have placed business on a pedestal and conferred upon it the responsibility for our future, as well as all the hopes and expectations that responsibility entails. This is way more than being a business that does good, this is business being called upon in many ways to be our savior, to bail us out. As the only adult left in the room, we're looking to business to fill leadership void left by media and NGOs and government. And the fact remains that business just isn't designed for that and CEOs aren't trained for that task. So while opting out of being the people's hero is not really an option, success is also not a shirt. I think it's going to be a major existential crisis for business over the next several years of can they live up to these new hopes and expectations and aspirations that have been heaped upon them and heaped upon them because they are the only institution that's both trusted and competent.

So those are the four big trends that we've been tracking that have all in some ways come to us for this year.

Host: It's interesting you say that because your report also found that most of the respondents identified "my employer" as the institution that they trusted most, which again, refers to the two you're talking about. So what responsibilities do employers then have in virtue of that trusted status? You mentioned they're not necessarily equipped for this nor trained. Is that going to become a necessary part of this job to be a leader you're going to have to navigate this world. And so you better learn it to be qualified to get the positions?

Dr. David M. Bersoff: So essentially at the level of business first, before I get down into the employer, the fundamental role of business is in the midst of being redefined to include expectations of contributing to society beyond supplying, products, jobs, and philanthropic dollars, what I was referring to. As I also said, these expectations are way beyond what can be accomplished with CSR as a bolt on corporate function. And so what we're seeing is that doing good and being values driven is basically becoming an intrinsic part of what it means to be a trusted company and good public standing. So as a result, values and purpose are going to have to become part of the corporate DNA of any enterprise that hopes, And we've got data to support all of this, that hopes to retain customers over the long-term, keep their best employees and attract investment money. All of those stakeholders are looking for business to do this. It's not a choice for business, it's not a choice for CEOs.

That said, within business, my employer holds a very privileged position of trust. We find that 76% of people trust their employer to do what is right. And that's a number that's been very stable over the past four years. So while we sometimes see some gyrations and trust associated with the other institutions, that trust in employer is high, consistent and rock solid. And I think it enjoys the special status for several reasons. First, the employer-employer relationship, it's a personal relationship. So you know your employer in general, they know you, it's a local relationship. It's a consistent presence in your daily life. And one of the things we're seeing these days is that trust has become more local. And third, you have leverage over your employer. So via collective action, employees do have the power to get their employers to change policies and get involved in issues. And these attributes all help to spawn and drive that trusting relationship.

But beyond that, what makes this relationship special and important is that employers have power, they have resources, they have exponentially greater wherewithal to get things done than I do as an individual. So this relationship between employer and employee is not just a close, trusting relationship, it's a personal relationship with a rich, connected and powerful other, and it's the only such relationship most people have in their lives. And so you can understand why there's so much emotional energy around the employer, and you can also understand why we are highlighting the importance of that relationship. Because this relationship is I've described it, it puts employers and I would argue a unique position to supply their employees with what they're currently seeking most ardently, which is trustworthy information, reassurance about their future and the opportunity to create positive change.

And these are becoming responsibilities of the employer to supply their employees with these things, which they can't get elsewhere. And in general, I think it's going to be difficult for untrusted institutions to rebuild trust in themselves in order to regrow trust needs a toehold. And from what I'm seeing, employers are that toehold and they really need to embrace that role. I think things are going to get better. The information problem is going to get addressed. Trust is going to be renewed, not so much from one grand gesture, but the actions of thousands of employers working with their employees and growing or regrowing that trust and faith in the system from the ground up.

Host: I'm wondering how you saw that last year obviously COVID has been here for a year now, we're recording in March. How has it affected people's trust in the societal institutions? And do you see it lasting or what's the lasting impact from that?

Dr. David M. Bersoff: Yeah, no, it's an interesting question. So we collect our trust data in October, November, and we really sit in January and of course, we released data in January of 2020, which of course, was prior to the pandemic, really becoming a reality, certainly in most of the Western countries. And then of course, it burst onto the scene and it had a huge impact on everything and every body. And so we went back out into the field to see what if anything the pandemic had done in terms of institutional trust. And what we found is that there was a trust search, trust in all the institutions actually went up and government in particular saw this big upward movement in trust. And it was actually at that point, the most trusted institution. Now, it's not unusual to see something like that in times like this it's that rallying around the flag idea or the circling the wagons that when you're in the midst of a crisis, people really rally around their institutions.

And for some, it's an act of faith, for some it's an act of hope, for some it's the product of psychological necessity because the prospect of living through a major crisis at the mercy of untrustworthy institutions is just a little too scary to contemplate. But the idea is you do tend to see trust surges around events like this. And then the question becomes, is that search a bubble or is that a real change in the status of that institute? So like I said, we went out mid year, we saw the surge. We asked ourselves, is that a bubble or not? We're back out in the field at the end of 2020, which was at that point, close to a year into the pandemic. And what we found is that faith or hope or psychological defense mechanism that had caused trust to go up had collapsed in the face of the realities of a pandemic that just wasn't being well-managed.

And as a result, the trust bubble burst and all of these institutions, which had this opportunity to burnish their image, they had this influx of faith and trust. Most of them squandered it, government squandered it more than any of the other institutions. But in general, that's been the story, that bubble has already burst to a large point. So the crisis itself increased trust, but how the institutions responded and reacted to that crisis has proven to not be up to the expectations of people. And that bubble has burst.

Host: I was struck mostly for, by the trust chasm you described. And I'm wondering, obviously, COVID, must've played into that some as well, what can be done to reduce that gap? And do you think it would ever be fully erased? Is there some way to get people together again on basic facts and at least understanding what the day of the week is or what time it is or anything?

Dr. David M. Bersoff: The trust gap, trust chasm, I don't think will ever be fully erased for the simple reason that that top 15%, the more educated, the more affluent, the more informed will always be in a better position to harvest the benefits of society or capitalize on the status quo. So there's always going to be a trust gap there, but what can and needs to be addressed is that the gap needs to be closed such that at least the top and the vast middle are not living in two separate trust realities. Because what we find in many markets is that the well-off are living in a world in which institutions are trustworthy and can be trusted while the mass population is living in a world where institutions are largely untrustworthy.

And that dual reality, again, feeds into two groups of people that aren't on the same page, that don't see the same needs, that don't see the same problems that need to be fixed, and you can't get anything done when you have that bifurcation difference of experience, different realities, societies, especially democracies tend to grind to a halt if there's too many people split between two different realities. In terms of how to address that, I think the first thing that needs to be done is a dismantling of the structural inequalities within society. So you don't get these K shape situations. You need to have a situation in which if there's prosperity, everybody is sharing in it. So maybe not to the same degree, the same level, but if the country's doing well, almost everybody in the country is doing well. If the country isn't doing well, then almost everybody in the country isn't doing well. And so it gets everyone on the same page, we're all in the same boat. When you've get that separation, that's a recipe for disaster. And that separation tends to be driven by structural inequalities.

And you see that around the issue of racism and structural inequalities around racism and how that basically pushes people off in two different trajectories. The society as a whole needs to address the issue of structural inequalities. And then the other thing that I think is important that societies aren't generally good at is change management. So we found in the 2020 barometer, actually, that 57% of respondents are worried that people like them are losing the respect and dignity that they once enjoyed in this country. And so, while I think part of the trust chasm is driven by economics, differential economics, structural inequalities, the other part of the trust chasm or another part of the trust chasm is driven by this sense among sizable number of people of being left behind, being left out, losing dignity, losing attention, not mattering anymore, not mattering anymore is huge.

People don't take that lying down, it's not something they can accept and feeling like you're being left out or left behind or not considered, that drives sense that the things aren't fair, that our institutions lack ethics, that I have to take all I can get now, without any concern for the future generations, it really moves people to extreme behavior. It moves them to selfishness. It moves them to scapegoating, immigrants, minorities. It really is a very pernicious element within society. And I would rank it second to the infodemic as an embedded attitude or perspective that's really making things unstable, unpleasant and leading into a lot of the polarization and polarity that we're seeing in society today.

Host: The barometer also breaks down findings by country and region, as it is worldwide. What are the biggest differences in trust between the US and China, the US and Europe, Latin America, and anything in these particular areas surprise you from the findings?

Dr. David M. Bersoff: Yeah, sure. Actually, can I just go back to, I wanted to finish my answer to the other question. So I detailed the aspect of social inequalities, and I explained the problem of people being left behind. And so the cure for people being left behind is really this idea of better change management. What our institutions need to do to increase their efficacy and foster a spirit of cooperation versus entrench against within society, they need to make change seem less threatening and more inclusive. And at the same time, they need to make the people who will inevitably be disrupted by change, feel as protected and respected as possible. Change is going to happen. Change has to happen. Change needs to happen. What we've traditionally been very bad at is managing that change, acknowledging that certain people aren't going to benefit from that change, that helping people see their place in this new future that we are creating and protecting those who will be hurt by the future.

Until we start doing that, you're going to continue to see that gap because change, progress, innovation is inevitable. We need to find a way of making that inevitable change less threatening big portions of the population in order to address that gap between the trustors and the non-trustors.

Host: It sounds like a big task for education, and we should committed that we make to it. They're all tied together that way. The barometer breaks down findings by country and region. So what are some of the biggest differences you see between trust in the US and trust in China and the US and Europe and Latin America?

Dr. David M. Bersoff: Sure. So we do look at trust by country and region, but that said, we don't really encourage looking at trust in one country versus trust in another country because there's different response tendencies at different parts of the world. And so you have a country like China, they tend to be more agreeable. They tend to agree with statements. They tend to use the higher ends of scales, et cetera. And so yes, there is a big trust difference between China and the US. China, when you look at the data, it looks to be a more trusting society and more trusting of its government. Now, part of that could be because China, they emerged more quickly from the pandemic, they had stronger economic growth, there's less governmental polarization preventing progress, but it's also likely partially due to the fact that as I said, the Chinese tend to be more positive than the Americans do.

But what I do find that's really interesting in terms of the US versus China, is that when you look at how the rest of the world perceives China and the US and the trustworthiness of the Chinese government and the US government, what you find is that neither of these most powerful countries in the world, the natural candidates for global leader in this time of crisis, neither one of them is trusted by the rest of the world. So here you have the two most logical countries to take a leadership position in the world. They have very different governments, very different political systems, very different histories, very different philosophies. And yet neither one has been able to win the confidence of the rest of the world. There is now this open position as the defacto global leader. And right now the two most logical suspects for occupying that position just are not from a position or from the point of view of trust, equipped to be in a leadership position.

Host: And the same for Europe and Latin America?

Dr. David M. Bersoff: One of the big dividing lines, it's not so much region as it is developing versus developed markets. So that's why you see some skews for North America and Western Europe versus Asia and other places we look at, it's not so much geography as developing versus developed. And what you find is that developed markets tend to be less trusting than developing markets and the people in those markets tend to be less positive. And I think part of the reason for that, we get people who are somewhat puzzled. It's like, well, life in America is so much better than life in India or life in China, how come our trust numbers aren't higher? And so I talk about the fact that when people are assessing how they're doing, they don't compare themselves, people in the US sitting around the dinner table, assessing how they're doing. They're not sitting there looking at their lives and saying, "Well, at least we're doing better than the Chinese." They're looking at their lives and they're saying, "Am I doing better than my parents? Are we doing better than we were doing five years ago?"

You compare yourself to other groups that are like you, or you at a previous point in time. And in some, in a country like the UK or France or the US, there's going to be more and more people saying, "You know what? My parents actually did better than I am, or you know what? I actually feel like I've lost ground over the last five or 10 years." That's going to lead you to distrust institutions, to lose faith in the system even if your benchmark day to day life is objectively higher or better than people in developing markets. But those people in developing markets, they're sitting around the dinner table and they're saying, "You know what? We have more freedoms than our parents and grandparents did. We're doing better than them. We're more educated or more advanced. We have more things. And you know what? We, as a family are doing better than we were five or 10 years ago." That does a lot to drive the sense that our institutions are trustworthy, the country's on the right track, things are okay, things are looking good.

And that results in some of these regional differences where the more developed countries just appear to be less trusting, less optimistic, less faith in the system, than some of these developing markets, even though the standard of living in those developing markets, isn't as high.

Host: It's a question of forward momentum, yeah. I guess if you're moving forward, you're feeling positive.

Dr. David M. Bersoff: Exactly. It really is about that momentum. It doesn't matter how well you're doing, if you see yourself going backwards, that's all you need. Then it's like, life sucks. And on the converse, if you see things moving up and getting better, you can absorb a lot of punishment, a lot of hardship when you're looking towards a future that's brighter than your present.

Host: I really enjoyed this. Let me get you out of here with one last question then, are you hopeful as you're speaking about hope for the future of truth and why or why not?

Dr. David M. Bersoff: So when I look towards the future in general, I keep in mind that this country survived McCarthyism and survived the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, unrest, lies and misinformation around the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement and all the protests of the 60s. So the country has come through tough times and seemingly attractable differences in our values before, and so that, our history gives me hope. But to the point you were raising, I don't think that unless until we cure the infodemic and emerge from information bankruptcy, I don't see a way forward. And what that means at a foundational level, until the rewards in society. And those rewards could be money or power or influence until those rewards are greater for spreading truth than for spreading lies and are greater for facilitating cooperation rather than fomenting divisiveness, especially democracies, we're going to continue to founder and suffer and weaken our societies.

Certainly, I think business has a big role to play in fixing some of these problems, particularly around information, but ultimately, we also need government and media to start working again. And as bad as January 6th was as a watershed moment of distrust and misinformation, I still don't believe we hit rock bottom, even with that event yet. And I do worry that it might take an even bigger shock particularly to this country before we shake ourselves out of that, before there is a greater reward for truth over lies and for cooperation over polarization.

Host: Certainly sobering as we go forward. And we joked before about agreeing on what day it is, but there are probably some people who would argue. It's scary.

Dr. David M. Bersoff: Absolutely.

Host: Hopefully, we'll figure this out as we go, but I want to thank you so much, David. This was really interesting and great. You guys do such a great job with this report and it's always a wealth of information. And I know our listeners are fascinated by it as well as I am. So thank you very much and stay safe. And we look forward to seeing you again in the future.

Dr. David M. Bersoff: You bet. Thank you.

Outro: We hope you enjoyed this episode. The Principled Podcast is brought to you by LRN. At LRN, our mission is to inspire principled performance in global organizations by helping them foster winning ethical cultures rooted in sustainable values. Please visit us at lrn.com to learn more. And if you enjoyed this episode, subscribe to our podcasts on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Google Podcasts, or wherever you listen. And don't forget to leave us a review.


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