A new study highlights the importance of mutual trust between citizens and authorities when society is facing a crisis. Moreover, data from the COVID-19 crisis indicates that general trust in our fellow citizens is unlikely to make us less compliant with restrictions.
Society is significantly better equipped to deal with crisis situations when the relationship between citizens and authorities is characterized by mutual trust and respect rather than distrust and hostility. This is confirmed by a new study using data from the first lockdown of the COVID-19 pandemic in Denmark in spring 2020.
The study shows that people with a high level of trust in government and the authorities are not only more likely to follow the authorities' instructions by their own admission. In practice, trust also helps people to comply with requirements and recommendations to stay home and avoid physical contact, as was the case during the lockdown.
Furthermore, the study shows – and this is new – that there is little reason to fear that trusting other people makes us less compliant.
For Séamus A. Power, Associate Professor at the Department of Psychology at the University of Copenhagen and lead-author of the study, this is an important finding:
"In theory, trust can have both a positive and negative side during an epidemic like COVID-19. It is positive that people listen to the authorities. On the other hand, the high level of trust in other people can also be jeopardizing how you adhere to the recommendations, simply because people trust that other people would not be out mingling if they had COVID and therefore become less cautious themselves. Our survey shows that this risk may be exaggerated. In general, trust is just good," he says.
Previous studies have suggested that general trust in other people – not just trust in authority – may cause us to become less compliant during an epidemic because we have exaggerated expectations of other people's responsibility.
But because the new study takes into account both people's actual and self-assessed behaviour, it can better assess how real the risk is. Indeed, the study draws on several thousand survey responses collected online during the lockdown in spring 2020, where participants were not only asked about their views on trust and the extent to which they believed they were complying with the restrictions. They also recorded their actual day-to-day activities.
The rich data confirms that people who express high levels of trust in other people are slightly less likely to comply with government requirements. But only judged on their own statements. Looking at people's actual behaviour as recorded in their 'diaries', the study finds no clear negative effect.
The widespread culture of trust seen across Scandinavian countries has been the subject of both political and scholarly interest. In the new study, the researchers therefore complement the quantitative part with 21 longer interviews in which selected participants from both Danish and foreign backgrounds elaborate on their views on trust and the significance of trust during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Overall, the interviews, which will also be developed in other scientific articles, show that many perceive trust as an important part of Danish culture with deep historical, political and cultural roots. Some also point to the fact that the political system, with its low corruption and multiple parties, fundamentally represents and respects the interests of people.
According to the authors of the study, such trust-building factors contributed to the broad support for the restrictions during the COVID-19 epidemic. At the same time, the Danish experience points to the importance of developing mutual trust between governments and citizens by focusing on improving people's lives and ensuring equal, fair treatment.
Such trust-building takes time. In return, Séamus A. Power believes, society will benefit greatly:
"People living in Denmark have an incredibly high level of trust in parliament, government and other people, and that was very important during the COVID pandemic. There might be some paradoxes related to trust, but on aggregate and from an overall democratic perspective, it is far better to have a trusting society than a society without trust."
About the study
The study, with the full title 'Why trust? A mixed-method investigation of the origins and meaning of trust during the COVID-19 lockdown in Denmark' is published in the British Journal of Social Psychology.
The first of two parts examines, through online surveys, a total of 2,816 participants' compliance with orders and recommendations in the period from 2 April to 18 May 2020, i.e. during the first COVID-19 lockdown in Denmark. Participants were asked questions about the extent to which they thought they complied with the restrictions, their concrete social activities and their views on trust.
The second part of the study consists of 21 semi-structured interviews with a sample of interviewees who represented the range of trust levels expressed in the survey. The interviews explore the participants’ experiences of and opinions on the lockdown and their views on trust.
The study has been conducted by Associate Professor Séamus A. Power, Department of Psychology, Professor Merlin Schaeffer, Department of Sociology, Professor Jan P. Heisig, Berlin Social Science Center, Professor Thomas Morton, Department of Psychology, and then Student Assistant Rebecca Udsen.
British Journal of Social Psychology
Why trust? A mixed-method investigation of the origins and meaning of trust during the COVID-19 lockdown in Denmark
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