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Distrust in public institutions threatens society

The gassing attacks have really exposed the mistrust that today reigns in us and our public institutions and officials or officers.

Public faith in the Zambian government or state institutions has dropped to an all-time low.

Public institutions should have a social purpose and should transcend individuals by creating norms and rules that people can count on. Basically, institutions are the building blocks of society. If we lose trust in an institution, dysfunction will follow until that institution is replaced by something else that can govern our behaviour and make life predictable.

Distrust in public institutions threatens society.

And distrust is certainly bad for governance and business, bad for the economy, and so on.
There are surely bad actors in both governance and business who don’t deserve our trust. But there are plenty of good actors, too. Knowing which of these to trust is more difficult than ever.

And for those of us with a stake in our own institutions, gaining trust is more paramount than ever.

In many cases, it’s good to be skeptical. But when we look at the history of our most important institutions, there’s a simpler explanation for why we lose faith, even for institutions that helped us out in the past.

Some time back, most people put their trust in religious institutions. Yet over the years, fewer and fewer people have trusted religion. This resulted in the splintering of religious sects – protesting the religion that betrayed your trust by forming a new religion – which eventually led to some people abandoning religion entirely.

Then we generally believed in democratic governments. But trust in that institution eroded as well. We became more cynical that the democratic process was truly working.

As faith in government rose and fell, we turned to business for a bit until that deteriorated. Certain industries, however, managed to keep our trust even as the general business world lost it. These included banks, charities, and the mass media. They were seen as more noble, more “in it” for the good of society. We now distrust all of those too; it just took a while longer.

Losing trust in an institution, or an individual, stems from betrayal: when we feel lied to, taken advantage of. In the case of all the institutions we have mentioned above, the loss of trust boils down to one thing: greed.

The pattern here is pretty simple. Religious leaders broke laws, misused funds, and showed that what a church said didn’t square with reality. Political leaders made decisions based on money rather than the good of the people. Financial companies got rich at the expense of poorer people and the economy at large. Media houses tricked people with misinformation or sketchy information meant to increase attention and revenue. We could go on a lot longer.

Fortunately, both science and history show us how we can get trust back once more.
Information and transparency build trust. The more we learn about what’s really going on inside an organisation, the more favourably we judge it compared to whatever category it fits in.

Overcoming this general mistrust takes a little more. We need to develop an emotional connection to regain trust or form a trusting connection with a person or institution.
If institutions are not just transparent about what they do, but forthcoming about how and why they are doing it, they’ll build trust – even in those that have lost credibility.

We built our trust in all of our institutions, from religion to banks to newspapers, based on the stories they told us. Now let’s start telling more of them. Let’s start telling true ones.

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