Do you trust politicians? Depends on how you define trust

[Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash]

EAST LANSING – There’s more to trust than credence and faith, especially as it comes to politics. Research from Michigan State University and North Carolina State University presents new evidence to suggest that there are more layers to political trust than the public – and politicians themselves – previously thought.

For decades, political scientists have measured the public’s trust in the federal government consistently, using measures that are largely unchanged since the 1960s – despite the momentous changes happening over the last five decades in the United States.

The new research, published in PLOS ONE, tested a vulnerability-centered definition of trust – meaning, defining trust as a willingness to be vulnerable to the actions of another. The results revealed three assessments that lead to one trusting in the government: whether it has the ability to do its job, the benevolence to care about its people and the integrity to generally do the right thing.

“We went beyond the question of, ‘do you trust government?’ to find out what the concept of trust really means. Our research presents new ideas for thinking about political trust and offers suggestions for how to refine it beyond what’s been done in the past,” said Joe Hamm, MSU assistant professor of criminal justice and lead author of the study. “Using previous trust measures, people view ‘happiness with’ and ‘trust in’ government interchangeably – which is something we wanted to break apart and dissect. This is critical for us to understand and consider, especially given shifts in what we perceive as trust in recent years.”

Hamm – who collaborated with MSU political scientist Corwin Smidt and Roger Mayer, professor of leadership in North Carolina State University’s Poole College of Management – recruited participants to complete an online survey about their perceptions of the federal government. Participants were asked about the extent to which they felt recent political scandals mattered, whether they felt as though the government positively affected the economy and the extent to which they believed government represented their interests.

“We then used a series of questions to specifically measure the three dimensions of ability, benevolence and integrity,” Hamm said. “Unlike the trust surveys used for decades, our questions focused specifically on the characteristics of government and how those characteristics impacted one’s comfort in allowing the government to have power over parts of their day-to-day lives.”

These more specific questions allowed for greater insight into how and why big issues, such as the economy and political scandals, may impact trust, Hamm said.

Data from the survey largely supported the researchers’ arguments, such that while prior measurements of trust are not necessarily inaccurate, context and nuance matter.

“We can do better in thinking more critically about the psychological nature of trust,” Hamm said.

The current research seeks to the lay the groundwork to eventually refine how political think tanks, pollsters and campaigns measure trust, Hamm said, and it may prove especially relevant looking ahead to the presidential election.

“We shouldn’t ask whether or not you trust a politician – it’s how you trust him or her, and what you’re willing to accept vulnerability for,” Hamm said. “If you’re a candidate looking ahead to the 2020 election, there are different things to consider to be someone constituents like versus one that they trust.”


  1. Politicians are far from Trust worthy, they are not public servants, once they are elected they work for he Washington DC Establishment, which is the biggest get rich quick scheme in the United States, once elected they are no longer the humble servant they claim they are…that is why we voted for President Trump, Politics needed a flush!

    • Please do not limit this to wash dc. Just look locally and you will see the same thing. Once elected cant be fired and dont dare to ask them to work for the people. The name greedyhalfa and chuckleberries ring any bells, except the 2d name IS NOT elected but rules by decree over those who are!

      none paying jobs such as tusd school bored falls into the same as it is used as a stepping stone to paid corruption. The city clowncil is a prime example of slightly paid who are in the same boat.


  3. I trust few politicians and few bureaucrats. Bureaucrats pretty much tell the politicians what to do. Federal gov. jobs should max out at 10 years. No retirement, health or additional benefits. Today Federal workers make more than counterparts in private industry with better benefits & retirement. Military the exception. BACKWARDS.

  4. I have never trusted politicians, I trusted President Trump enough to vote for him because he was not a politician. I still remember the announcement he made that he was running for President,I thought then, as I still do now, that he would make a great President.
    As for the rest? Nah!

    • @Aric: while I proudly voted for Trump, I really was voting against Hillary.
      Most are worthless sacks of shit, those that aren’t, are soon corrupted. My lifetime looser carpet bagging Congress women who can’t remember her real address is just another fine example.
      She claims to represent me? But she’s only party agenda driven and clearly doesn’t care what her constituents think.
      Do I trust politicians? Even at my age I could piss further into the wind.

      The Oracle

  5. More dribble, saying nothing and having the space to say it in. Trust the government yes, the politicians NO. These guys think they know what is best for all and then go and do what they want. They do not represent the people who EMPLOY them they represent themselves and their OWNERS. These are the reasons that the people do not have full faith and trust in the government. Just look at what has been going on these past 2 years and see that its about party and self and NOT the COUNTRY or the PEOPLE. To be a politician you must be BOUGHT and SOLD on a regular basis and that is why they HATE the current president. Their meal ticket hitlery was beaten and they now must figure out how to get back on the gravy train and being against trump is the only way. They all need to be fired so we can start again and maybe just maybe get some people that represent the will of the people not the puppet masters like they do now.

  6. Trust but verify. The schism between politicians and those they work for, is deep and wide. Until they realize that the rules we are governed by, but do not apply to them, like it should, the gap will continue to grow, and trust will continue to evaporate. Trust but verify. Interesting how two non politicians got it.

Comments are closed.