Changing How the World Thinks

An online magazine of big ideas


The fallacy of trust

Disaster and disease won't alter the human condition

Silvia Camporesi bioethics covid-19 quarantine

Do some societies trust each other and their governments more than others, and does this explain why stringent lockdown rules have been applied in some places and not others? Or should we be wary of this binary sliding scale reinforcing social stereotypes? 

After the lockdown, as measures start to be eased up around the world, who will we trust to see without a mask? Who will we trust with a kiss and hug? Who will we trust to have intimate relationships with?

These are some of the questions on my mind as we very slowly emerge from one of the most stringent lockdowns in Europe. In Italy, Phase 2 has officially started.

After eighty days of isolation, I am free to go out, and can finally go for a run in the park. I can also visit family within the limits of my region, albeit not friends until the Phase 3 is rolled out.

A friend of mine put this beautifully in an email: “I think people will have to restack their self-identities and relationships with family, friends and community. Will we be able to trust the judgment, behaviour of others to ensure our safety before the vaccine and even after? Trust will take on a new dimension I think. But so too will love”.

What does trust even mean?

Trust pervades the everyday reciprocity of social relations: it is the oil that permits the cogs in the wheels of society to run.

As the British sociologist Anthony Giddens theorised in his book “The consequences of modernity, 30 years ago, trust is the foundation of self and provides ontological security. Through primary relationships with parents and carers during the early years of life, we learn to trust others, trust ourselves, and navigate the world.

As we grow up, we learn to do this by trusting others beyond our family unit: from the first persons that our parents trust for childcare, to teachers, and then friends and lovers. Trust pervades the everyday reciprocity of social relations: it is the oil that permits the cogs in the wheels of society to run.

Trust is often quantified. Is there trust? Isn’t there trust? Discussions around covid-19 were dominated by numbers, as pointed out by sociologist Mark Davis at the University of Melbourne. Infection rate, mortality rate, graphs showing the number of daily tests, discussions on whether the expected target was reached, etc… all summed up the calculations and projections which we have been absorbing in the past three months. They have determined in one way or another (although, in ways that have not always been transparent), whether we are confined within the walls of our homes, or whether and when we are able to go out again.

Research aimed at assessing the levels of trust of individuals linked, in a statistically significant way, with the compliance to public health measures is not new. To cite one of many similar studies, surveys conducted by researchers at the University of Georgia in the United States on public responses to the 2009 H1N1 pandemic found that respondents who exhibited lower trust were less likely to comply with public health advice. Similar surveys are being conducted now to measure compliance with public health advice in the pandemic.

Governance and politics are imbued with questions of trust and distrust. The expertise and authority of science and medicine are an object of trust, since so many of the life choices individuals are required to make depend on the expert knowledge possessed by others. This was evident in the discussion around lockdown measures and governments claiming to be ‘following the science’.

However, different governments have come up with different solutions (different public health measures) to the same problem. Can that be reconducted to low and high trust in governments? An article appeared in the Guardian which conceptualised trust in a binary way by investigating the cultural factors that shape different countries’ responses. The authors compare the lockdown model of Spain (the most stringent lockdown in Europe, on a par, with Italy’s) with Sweden’s, where social distancing was not enforced by the police but was left to individuals’ moral responsibility. The authors write that they were both “convinced that the “Swedish model” could not be exported to countries such as Spain or Turkey, where levels of social and institutional trust are much lower”.

This is an intuitively appealing view and one shared by many.

I have discussed my critical views on stringent lockdown policies with some friends and family. Fellow Italians have rebuked me: “Yes, of course, this could work in Sweden, or maybe in the UK” – apparently, along this continuum of ‘disciplined and highly-trusting societies’, Sweden ranks higher than the UK – “obviously it couldn’t have worked in Italy, where we don’t know how to queue (though we have been forced to learn in recent months) and we respect the laws only if they are actively enforced.” Plus, they would add: “Italians don’t trust their governments”. Had it been left to us Italians to behave responsibly and socially distance, this reasoning implies, we would not have done it. Trusting societies will follow guidelines voluntarily, it suggests, untrusting societies must have guidelines enforced.

The expertise and authority of science and medicine are an object of trust, since so many of the life choices individuals are required to make depend on the expert knowledge possessed by others.

I remain unconvinced. Isn’t this the exact sort of reasoning itself which reifies the stereotype? In other words, if this sort of argument forms the basis for stringent lockdown policies, it will also – necessarily – end up reinforcing those same behaviours that the public health measures were put in place to counteract.

As a matter of fact, the idea that trust varies along a continuum, and that there are ‘high trust’ and ‘low trust’ societies has been challenged by social scientists before. Among many other researchers, I have also investigated with colleagues the factors that lead to compliance with expert advice in a variety of settings from vaccination , to pharmacological treatment, to climate change, and in a variety of countries and cultures. Our research has shown that more complex and qualitative notions of trust, beyond quantifications along a gradient, are needed to explain the complexities of trust in expert knowledge systems.

There is not a single, simple answer behind child immunisation refusal, nor is there one which can explain compliance or lack thereof. Unfortunately, to make sense of the pandemic, simple and easy answers do not work. Iit is not a coincidence that the authors of the Guardian article cited above write that they could not explain, on the basis of their discrimination between low trust societies (i.e. Spain, Italy) and high trust societies (i.e. Sweden), why the model was not adopted by other Nordic countries, such as Denmark, Norway, that share many of Sweden’s social characteristics. This is because, while enticing, such binary notions of trust need to be abandoned. Other factors will need to be investigated to explain the difference between Sweden and the fellow Scandinavian countries, and the differences between Italy and Spain.

Vaccination elicits strong opinions. So does lockdown. Along the lines of pro or against lockdown, new friendships and relationships are being forged, others are being damaged.

Many people have found themselves divided along the lines of “pro” or “against” lockdown. I, for one, have been reluctant to discuss openly my views about lockdown with some of my friends, because I was afraid of their reactions. What if they did not agree with my views? Would I think less of them? Would they think less of me? Instead of sharing our views, and the information we believe support them, with peers we fear disagreeing with, we turn to the web and fnd other people who, although far away, may be closer in sentiment. After a while, the algorithms behind Facebook and Twitter may just propose back to you the same arguments and ideas, reinforcing your convictions that you are in the right.

Given this complex background, what will trust mean in a post covid-19 world? After the lockdown, as measures start to be eased up around the world, who will we trust to see without a mask? And who will we trust to kiss, hug, and have sex with?

Unfortunately, to make sense of the pandemic, simple and easy answers do not work.

Trust goes hand in hand with vulnerability as a concept. As humans, our condition is to be vulnerable. The Italian poet Giuseppe Ungaretti (1888-1970) captured the human condition beautifully in his poem: “Si sta come d’autunno sugli alberi le foglie” or “we are vulnerable, like leaves on a tree branch in the fall”. This is the human condition; it has not changed with covid-19. Worse and more devastating diseases have ravaged the world before covid-19, and we should be prepared for still worse diseases to emerge in the post-covid-19 world. We are still leaves on a branch as fall is approaching. On a day breezier than others, more leaves than usual will fall. Eventually, they will all fall.

Research is needed to discover the ways in which vulnerable people want to be protected, including, the older people, and those at risk of experiencing severe covid-19 due to pre-existing conditions. I suspect that many people classified as vulnerable — including the older demographics — will not want to spend the last years of their lives isolated from their children and most importantly grandchildren. I suspect that many would rather run the risk of being infected, and dying, by being closer to those they love. I may be wrong. The important message here is: we need, to ask them. The question to ask ourselves is then transformed from “Who will we trust in the post-covid-19 world” to “Who will we allow ourselves to be vulnerable with?"

Shifting the burden from ‘trusting’ others to ‘allowing oneself to be vulnerable’, allows us to think in a different way about the future, and to act differently in the present to make that future possible. Natural disasters and emergencies, including pandemics, will not change the human condition, and should not change the way we live and relate with others. Unless we let them do so.

 Find Silvia's research here, and follow her on Twitter at @silviacamporesi

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