Thursday, October 06, 2011

Diminishing Social Trust and America’s Failure To Thrive

I have a friend who lives in perpetual disdain of data, probably even more so now that Brad Pitt has made statistics sexy.

While friendly on a personal level, he is at the same time publicly dismissive of people in my now concluded career of community/destination marketing because they are “paid” to convey information about their communities. My friend probably hasn’t kept up with the latest research about motivation and drive.

He’s an old-schooler, and unfortunately, from what I remember from a few destination marketing organization (DMO) execs past and present, my friend has probably come by his cynicism honestly.  For instance, years ago I knew a DMO exec with hubris enough to believe he was entitled to make up statistics out of thin air just because he was the so-called tourism expert in his community.Trust

As a whole, DMO execs are far more driven to make a difference and by a sense of purpose than they are financial incentives. But then again, maybe my friend’s exposure has been primarily to those in sales, whom the research shows can be the most vulnerable to unethical choices.

Statistics themselves don’t lie, but often people do.

A friend of mine in talk radio asked me how I knew that Durham had a level of passion, engagement and pride among its residents that is two to three times greater than other communities including those nearby that are held in seemingly high self-regard.

When I responded that it is benchmarked by scientific surveys, he quipped, “I’m glad we have them to tell us what we think.”  He’s obviously in the anecdote business and  I didn’t get an opportunity to explain to him that the anecdotes he enlists in his line of work are useless bases for decision-making unless they can be shown to be generalizable to an entire population.

Unfortunately, far too many news reports and news analyses are now the result of reporters interviewing reporters, heaping anecdote upon anecdote as though they will become reliable by sheer weight.  A fool-proof way to spot someone trapped in their own anecdotes is when someone responds to scientific research findings with a comment like, “well that’s not what I think.”

Uhhhh, ooookay!

Increasingly we hear interviewees on the news, including people seeking elected office, who indicate that individually they have queried tons of people across this state or this nation or even at a conference they attended to then bulwark their opinions.  The problem is that unless the sample was random and large enough, it is still just anecdotal and just their opinion, regardless of their personal expertise or experience.

We frequently hear how untrustworthy the news media is but surveys shows that the news media, especially at the local level, I mean truly local, not just 30,000 feet, is far more trusted (69%) than candidates running for office (29%.)  We hear how untrustworthy the federal government is at (44%) from Republicans but trust in business, a source of much of their campaign financing, is worse (41%.)

Another poll just released by 60 Minutes shows that overall more Americans trust journalists (76%) than politicians (6%.)  By 7 to 1 even Conservatives trust journalists more than politicians although they fall behind Moderates who trust journalists over politicians by 13 to 1 and Liberals trust journalists over politicians by 30 to 1.

A year ago, a survey benchmarked “social trust,” which was defined as “faith in people” or the honesty, integrity and reliability of others.  It came up with a “social trust index” based on how those surveyed responded when asked about who they trust, who they did not trust, who might take advantage of them, who is likely to be helpful or just looking out for themselves.

American adults scored 35% with high trust, 22% mid and 38% low.  Blacks and Hispanics had much higher levels of mistrust that whites.  Young people had higher levels of mistrust than older people, singles more mistrust than married people, lower income more mistrust than higher income, city dwellers more than rural dwellers, high school grads more than college grads, struggling classes more than professionals, non-military more than active military or veterans, non-voters more than voters.

People in the south had higher levels of social mistrust than in the northeast.  Moderates, Independents and Liberals scored more mistrustful than Conservatives.

However, it appears from another study that the ultra-conservative fundamentalists who are purging the Republican Party are negatively associated with social trust.  The authors of American Grace note that:

“Fundamentalist religious views are negatively associated with social trust…Social trust increases with religious attendance but decreases with fundamentalism…Religious liberals more often experience a loving God, and they are among the most socially trusting of Americans, whereas religious conservatives more often experience a judgmental God, and they are among the least trusting of Americans, especially if they are not observant.

For highly observant fundamentalist Americans, their theology inclines them toward skepticism about human nature but their frequent attendance somehow move them to a more optimistic view.”

This is the group that, although a small sliver of society, has monopolized news coverage for the last two years.  They want smaller government because they don’t trust government.  They seem callous to helping people because they fear these folks will take advantage.  They resist compromise because they don’t trust in win/win solutions.

These folks don’t just preach decline today.  They’ve preached decline since before the country was founded.    Like more than 90% of Americans, they believe in God but a judgmental God.  They are steeped in conspiracies and self-fulfilling prophesies.

They vote to cut funding for food inspection, environmental protection, pre-school education.  They are obsessed with “cut, cut, cut” at exactly t he worst time in the economic cycle.

A recent op-ed likened the excuse given by one of the 12 Republicans who voted against the most recent agreement to break a government stalemate to protest against dysfunction calling it “a little like protesting the slowness of rush-hour traffic by abandoning your car in the center lane.”

Maybe the fallacy of that official’s rationalization is also what’s at the heart of what one Conservative commentator means when he warns that “Segmented societies do not thrive, nor do ones, like ours, with diminishing social trust.”

“Without such trust, writes Mark Nepo in his book Finding Inner Courage, “we can turn blunt and cruel.”

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