When trust in government slumps: lessons from pandemic survey

When people lose trust in the government, effects may ripple across workplaces and individuals' wellbeing.

Dr Lixin Jiang

It’s one of the burning issues of the pandemic: maintaining trust in governments.

University of Auckland psychologist Dr Lixin Jiang was the lead author of a small-scale study in the US that looked at people’s trust in the state and federal governments.

The study pointed to how breakdowns in trust in government may ripple across society, affecting behaviour in workplaces and individuals’ well-being.

The survey of 492 workers, conducted while President Donald Trump was in power, showed only about 27 percent trusted both federal and state governments, the researchers said.

But trust in government was associated with better workplace attitudes, greater adherence to Covid-19 guidelines and improved psychological well-being, according to Dr Jiang, a senior lecturer in the School of Psychology.

Here in New Zealand, protests at Parliament over vaccine mandates and an assortment of other issues have highlighted breakdowns in public trust in the state.

It seems the ability to trust – such as believing that a government cares about your well-being and has good intentions – helps people to facilitate relationships, flowing into benefits in the workplace, the researchers said.

“We found that people can have different trusting profiles, so they either felt they can trust the federal government, but not the state or vice versa,” said Dr Jiang, who received her Ph.D. at Washington State University in the US before joining the University of Auckland.

“The best-case scenario was when people trusted both types of government, rather than the people who didn’t trust either or felt neutral.”

Breakdowns in trust in government may ripple across society, affecting behaviour in workplaces and individuals’ well-being

The study suggested that people with high levels of trust in government felt more secure in their jobs, had higher employer loyalty and were more likely to go out of their way to help co-workers.

In New Zealand, protests at Parliament over vaccine mandates and assorted other issues have highlighted breakdowns in public trust.

Asked if she would expect similar results here, Dr Jiang speculated that trust in government could flow through to benefits for individuals and, potentially, workplaces.

“Although local research is needed, studies conducted in other countries have shown that trust in government benefits individuals’ well-being.”

In the new research:

  • About 26 percent of workers trusted their state government but not the federal government
  • About 2 percent – 11 people – trusted only the federal government and not the state government
  • About 22 percent distrusted both forms of government and 24 percent were “ambivalent,” the researchers said.

Professor Tahira Probst, a psychology professor at WSU Vancouver, was co-author of the study.

One way for the government and employers to boost trust is to communicate clearly and transparently, Professor Probst said.

“Consistency of messaging is really important,” she said. “That’s a challenge in the pandemic because the situation is changing over time, but part of the messaging has to explain to people the rationale for why policies and recommendations are changing, and how they are being made with their best interests in mind.”

The survey respondents weren’t quizzed on their political affiliations, such as Republican or Democrat.

Trust in the US government has slumped over the past 60 years, falling from 4 out of 5 people trusting the government in 1964, to 1 out of 5 in 2007, according to the Pew Research Centre.

Media contact

Paul Panckhurst | media adviser
M: 022 032 8475
E: paul.panckhurst@auckland.ac.nz