Research Article: Understanding the psychological nature and mechanisms of political trust

Date Published: May 15, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Joseph A. Hamm, Corwin Smidt, Roger C. Mayer, Daniel Wisneski.


Political trust is a perennially important concern and the events of the last few years have, in many ways, heightened this importance. The relevant scholarship has done much to meet this challenge but continues to struggle with definitional unclarities and an inability to provide accounts that consistently operate as expected. The current research seeks to test the potential of a classic model of trust from the organizational sciences that makes specific arguments regarding the psychological nature and mechanisms of the construct in helping to address these concerns. Using data from a national convenience sample, we provide preliminary evidence which suggests that measures and models addressing this theoretical account of psychological trust form unidimensional and reliable measures that may more precisely explain the process of political trust and outperform current measures in predicting relevant correlates. We conclude by discussing the implications and limitations of our work and, in so doing, lay a foundation for a new research agenda for political trust.

Partial Text

Political trust matters [1]. There are certainly important reasons for a society to hold a healthy level of skepticism towards its government [2], but when governments are unable to engender the trust of their constituents they open the door to a host of social costs, ranging from a lack of civic compliance with government orders (e.g., [3]) to opposition to new government programs or efforts to increase security (e.g., [4]), and may even facilitate civil conflict or separatism (e.g., [5]). It is therefore vital that research remain vigilant in understanding the nature of this trust and, to this end, social scientists have expended considerable effort. Nonetheless, and despite important advances (see [6]), political trust remains a complicated construct, often most clearly defined by measures which are themselves bogged down by continual concern over what they actually represent (see [6,7]). It is, as yet, unclear whether measures like those used in the American National Election Study (ANES), the World Values Survey, or the General Social Survey actually assess trust or whether they integrate related constructs like trustworthiness, satisfaction, or confidence.

A national convenience sample of participants (n = 503) were recruited using Mturk to complete an online survey about their perceptions of the federal government during the fall of 2015. To address potential attention and motivation issues, participation was restricted to Master Workers who had approval ratings of 95% or greater. The selection criteria for these individuals is proprietary but is intended to identify high-performers and is therefore associated with a higher required wage. Although not without concerns in social science research (e.g., [35]), work addressing these samples is generally supportive of their use and suggests that they are both more representative (e.g., [36]) and no more likely to elicit problematic responding (e.g., [37]) than more traditional approaches. Thus, although research does suggest important differences in demographic and other characteristics (e.g., comfort using technology), the current sample represents a sufficient and—given the trade-off between cost and utility—potentially even ideal basis for such preliminary work [36].

The research reported here sought to lay preliminary empirical groundwork for a new line of scholarship on political trust that would advance the literature by integrating arguments from a model of trust from the organizational sciences that has been well-supported in a variety of contexts. This model argues that trust is a willingness to accept vulnerability to the agentic actions of the trustee and hypothesizes that this willingness is driven by an evaluation of the trustee’s worthiness of that trust. When integrated with traditional approaches to political trust, this suggests that the effects of the antecedents that are usually discussed in this literature may actually be mediated by attributions of government’s trustworthiness, which can be meaningfully captured by assessing its perceived ability, benevolence, and integrity. Three hypotheses flow directly from this integration of the MDS model and preliminary, cross-sectional support for each was provided here.

The current research is largely supportive of the potential for this classic organizational model of trust to help in clarifying, supplementing, and expanding existing theories of political trust. The current paper therefore contributes to a growing body of literature in a variety of contexts that speak to the potential for a cross-boundary understanding of trust. Specifically, the theoretical model proposed here joins with work that suggests that trust is best understood as a willingness to accept vulnerability that rests on an assessment of whether the trustee is worthy of that trust. Thus, this model suggests that the success of efforts to understand and build trust likely rely heavily on the extent to which they address salient vulnerabilities but it advances this contribution by suggesting that assessments of ability, benevolence, and integrity have a particularly important role to play.




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