Ipsos MORI Thinks

Trust in professionals and the Global Trustworthiness Monitor

MIKE CLEMENCE Research Manager

Do we trust some professions more than others? For over 35 years Ipsos MORI’s Veracity Index has been asking the public which professions they think are most likely to tell the truth. While some professions are perpetually at the bottom (politicians), doctors were found to be the most trusted profession every year between 1993 and 2016.40 More recent years have not shown a drop in trust in doctors – rather it was the addition of nurses to the roster which finally dislodged them from the top spot.

Building on this survey, here we widen our scope to 23 countries around the world and focus on trustworthiness, asking participants to rate how trustworthy they find different professions, on a scale of one to five.

We have chosen ‘trustworthiness’ as our measure, reflecting David Maister’s research into operationalising trust, because it is a good fit for assessing professions:

  • Some of our list, such as judges, should hold ‘credibility’ from their qualifications;
  • Doctors might score highly on ‘reliability’ as we go to them for cures;
  • Those with children entrust their care to teachers, which could be a measure of ‘intimacy’.

It leaves only the denominator – perceived self-interest – unaccounted for, and this is where the public value of a profession can come into play. Those jobs which are held in high esteem by national publics (e.g. doctors) might be upweighted here, as people assume these positions’ self-interest is aligned with theirs. By contrast professions which suffer from public doubts about their motives (for instance, bankers) might lose out.

In this chapter, after reviewing the most – and least – trustworthy professions, we will examine the drivers of trust in the average person, before considering how culture impacts the extent to which different countries are willing to say they find professions trustworthy. This leads to a presentation of the Ipsos Trustworthiness Monitor, which provides a more rounded view of which countries put greater faith in the professions.

Which are the most trustworthy professions?

Our new data shows that, perhaps unsurprisingly, doctors are widely trusted. But while they are rarely outside the top three in any given country, they aren’t the most trustworthy profession: that distinction is reserved for scientists!

Six in ten (60%) rate scientists either a four or five out of five for trustworthiness and just 11% put them at one or two on the scale. Country-level trust ranges from a high of 76% in Russia to four in ten in South Korea and Japan (42% and 40%, respectively). The latter two countries are the only ones in our sample where less than half of the population give a high trustworthiness score to scientists. Although it is worth noting that the proportion who give them a low score is directly in line with most other nations, and in part reflects cultural difference in how Japanese and Korean people answer surveys – something we find across all subject areas.

Doctors occupy the global second spot on 56%, with Spain and Australia the two most trusting of doctors (both 69%). Japan (39%) and South Korea (28%) are again the least likely to accord a high level of trustworthiness to doctors, but this time they are joined by
Hungary (38%).

Teachers are the third most trustworthy profession worldwide, on 52 per cent. While Russians show the highest absolute level of trust in teachers (76%) they esteem scientists more highly still, and it is Brazilians and Americans who give teachers top marks for trustworthiness (57% and 61% respectively).

Few countries do not rate one of this triad of professions as the most trustworthy, but those that do represent a substantial chunk of the world’s population – Indians consider members of the armed forces to be the most trustworthy profession (70%), while Chinese citizens report highest trust in the police (80%).

… and which are the least?

There is greater uniformity in low-trusted professions, with just two main types coming bottom in every country: politicians and advertising executives. Politicians are the clear winners of this dubious prize – 15 countries put “politicians generally” or “government ministers” bottom, compared with six countries that opt for advertisers.

  • Politicians are lowest for Argentina, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Poland, South Africa (as government ministers), South Korea, Spain, Turkey and the US
  • Advertising executives are lowest for Australia, Belgium, Hungary, Russia, Sweden and Great Britain.

Where does the average citizen stand?

Trust in other people is commonly considered as a central pillar of social capital – and the proportion in any society who feel that “most people can be trusted” is one of its most important, and longest-running, metrics.41 Our poll approaches the topic from another angle, adding ‘ordinary men/women’ to the list of professions and asking the global public how trustworthy they are. On this measure we find emerging economies (often considered countries with lower social capital) to be the most positive about the average person. This does not necessarily match the described pattern in the previous chapter, but methodological differences should be taken into account. The Global Trustworthiness Monitor was carried out online, which means that in emerging economies respondents are more likely to be more educated and more urban than the population as a whole. This does reflect findings elsewhere – levels of trust tend to be higher for higher educated groups.

Russia leads the way with two-thirds of Russian citizens finding ordinary people to be trustworthy (64%). The next most positive country is India (49%), followed by Argentina (47%) and Mexico, Saudi Arabia and China (all 45%). Although not all emerging economies are similarly optimistic – trust is much lower in Turkey (26%) and Brazil (32%).

By contrast, developed economies score lower: Spain is the most optimistic with 43% rating the average person as trustworthy and in France and Italy this is 35%. Sweden – usually a paragon of social capital – is in the bottom five, with 26% rating ordinary people as trustworthy. Hungary, South Korea and Japan form a now-familiar bottom three, on 23%, 22% and 18% respectively.

There may be other reasons for this inversion of expectation beyond methodological differences. The ‘optimism divide’ between emerging and developed markets42 means that those in the former group of countries might be more willing to give the benefit of the doubt to regular people, or the use of the term “ordinary” in a list of professions may make this type of person more sympathetic in some countries rather than others. And, as we show in the Trustworthiness Monitor overleaf, when we include all professions we get an ordering of countries more in line with the expected pattern. Whatever the underlying reasons, it points to the importance of culture in mediating trust.

The impact of culture and the Trustworthiness Monitor

Differences between countries in survey response are a well-established part of international research, as are the theories to explain it, from “emotional expressiveness”43 in some Mediterranean cultures, to the avoidance of extremes commonly witnessed in East Asian societies.

In our survey, the impact is seen in large differences in the extent to which professions are considered trustworthy. To give one example, while scientists are the most trustworthy profession in both Hungary and Russia, the proportion who consider them trustworthy is 58% in the former and 76% in the latter. Overall there appear to be three key country groupings:

  • Optimists: Countries, typified by China and India, who rate those in many professions as trustworthy
  • Pessimists: For instance Hungary and Argentina, with a gloomier view who consider most professions to be untrustworthy
  • Contingent: In this group, exemplified by Germany and Japan, we see a greater proportion who are ambivalent and perhaps less likely to make a judgement call solely based on a person’s professional status.

A standard treatment of the data will miss the distinction between pessimists and contingent countries, as both show low overall percentages for trustworthiness. The difference between these groups is that while pessimists show high levels of distrust, among the contingent group distrust is lower. This means that the latter group may well be net positive about a number of professions, despite the lower trustworthiness scores they give.

To overcome this we have created the Trustworthiness Monitor: a measure which takes the sum score of trustworthiness for all professions and subtracts it from the sum score of the proportion who find each profession not trustworthy. This reveals that the country most likely to consider most of the professions in the survey to be trustworthy is China – and Hungarians are the least trusting in our global sample.

The ordering of countries in the Monitor presents a mix of the theories mentioned previously: China and India, key emerging markets which tend to score higher on optimism but lower on social capital, are at the top of the list. Those countries commonly associated with higher social capital – such as Canada, Sweden and the US, alongside other anglophone countries are also towards the top with a net positive score. Finally, Latin American and post-Soviet societies, which rank lower in social capital and tend to have a more pessimistic outlook, fall into negative territory. The Monitor also produces a large gap between Japan and South Korea: while they often score similarly on trustworthiness of individual professions, there is greater negativity in South Korea and this is reflected here.

Our data on the trustworthiness of professions is another example of the complexity of trust. While each theory of trust can explain so much, it is incomplete unless the wider context is considered. The Monitor, like so much research into trust, highlights the importance of understanding each country’s context – generalisations only take us so far.

“China and India are the most optimistic countries – rating most professions to be trustworthyVI”

Trust: The Truth?

We decided to write this report because we wanted to test if the prevailing narrative matched the data. The ‘truth about trust’ is that trust is complex, and takes many forms (many of these forms are not in crisis or decline). Without some degree of trust society simply would not function…