In 2015, Pew found that Americans’ trust in our government is dismally low, with only 19 percent of respondents saying they trust our leaders all or most of the time. A year later, it’s hard to imagine things are looking much better. With less than a week to go to before Election Day and dirt on the candidates piling up at lightning speed, whom should voters trust, and how can we reverse such widespread cynicism?
Most political marketing revolves around trying to erase trust and confidence in one’s opponent. Thus, Donald Trump tries to paint Hillary Clinton as “lying Hillary” and Clinton suggests that if Trump can be “baited by a tweet,” he should not be anywhere near nuclear codes. In each case, both candidates seek to make the other seem unreliable.
And this kind of manipulation works. Research shows that when people make a decision to trust someone, they often make fast, intuitive judgments based on instant cues (e.g., facial expressions) that go untested by reflection. Researchers Alex Todorov and Janine Willis at Princeton have shown that people make trust judgments based on nonverbal cues in 100 milliseconds or less. Jonathan Haidt’s research on moral judgments shows that our moral judgments start with emotional reactions that we justify afterward with backfilled reasons. Because these fast, intuitive judgments are biased, we are easily fooled into trusting bad people — Bernie Madoff understood this very well. For politicians, the challenge is both to appear trustworthy and to make one’s opponent seem less so.
In the fall, to explore how people were assessing trustworthiness in this election cycle, I conducted a national poll of 400 people concerning trust in Clinton and Trump. The survey was based on research that shows that when we make slower, more calculated trust decisions we use three factors to assess trustworthiness: ability (competence), benevolence (cares about my interests) and integrity (predictability).
Among respondents in both candidates’ respective parties, Clinton and Trump have virtually equal and fairly low overall trust scores — a mean score of 3.4 for each candidate on a 1-to-5 scale where 5 means high trust. Among independents, trust scores are much lower for both candidates: 2.4 for Clinton and 1.9 for Trump. And most independents think that both candidates lack integrity: Sixty percent disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement that these candidates “tell the truth.”
The big difference is that Clinton scores much higher on ability among independents than Trump — only 13 percent agree or strongly agree that Trump is well qualified to be president, compared with 54.6 percent for Clinton.
We see very different statistical models in what drives perceptions of trust and distrust in these candidates among people from different party affiliations, age, income and other categories. For example, less educated and lower-income people place greater weight on benevolence and less on integrity. Younger people tend to place less weight on integrity. Republicans value ability much more that benevolence, and Democrats weigh integrity and benevolence higher than ability. This supports research about how personal and emotional our trust decisions are.
And the reasons we trust a candidate or not are just as important as our final determinations. In October, to further explore how people made trust decisions concerning politicians, I asked 30 of my students to rate Trump and Clinton on a 5-point trust scale, and to provide three written reasons that explained their ratings. After they had finished, I asked them how easy or difficult it was to explain the trust rating they gave the candidates. The majority of them admitted they struggled to find clear reasons for their ratings. On examination of their written explanations, what I saw confirmed their admissions, as the writing exhibited mostly emotional and intuitive reasoning.
Both the experiment and the survey results are consistent with research on trust and moral judgments. We invent reasons that match our intuitive emotional reactions, which make us naive discerners who are not good at analyzing trustworthiness.
The problem with the way we select our presidents, and what allows would-be politicians to manipulate us through attack ads and smear campaigns, is that when we judge trustworthiness we pay too much attention to personality, style and likability — and not enough attention to alignment of interests (as in the form of policy platforms) and competence (for instance, demonstrated success in governing). When assessing trust in our presidential candidates, we rely heavily on our intuitions and emotions, and employ little reasoning, much in the same way market research shows we buy low-involvement consumer products (e.g., laundry detergent) compared to high-involvement purchases (e.g., a house). The trouble is, of course, that choosing a president should be a highly involved process, both for our national interests and the democratic process as a whole.
After all, selecting untrustworthy candidates hurts our ability to trust our leaders and other candidates in the future. Each time we choose candidates we should never have trusted, we get fooled, and we become a little more cynical.
So ignore the catchy slogans and flashy attack ads, and don’t go with your gut. We need to slow down to make a more robust assessment of those who will lead us.