Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Trust me

You just can’t trust anyone these days. You just can’t trust anyone these days. You just can’t trust anyone these days. You just can’t trust anyone these days. You just can’t trust anyone these days.

Those repeats were intended.

Behavioral scientists have studied the links between repetition of a message and its persuasive effect. They say we tend to believe things that are repeated over and over; and at least five times is good enough for that. In their study from 1992, Scott Hawkins and Stephen Hoch, both based in the US, suggested that repetition increases familiarity, and familiarity serves us as a common sense rule in determining the truth of a message.

Indeed, common sense, which these days is in itself steeped in cynicism and prejudices, tells us you just can’t trust anyone these days. We have seen it enough to declare that our politicians are crooks; our educators are swindlers, our intellectuals are loco. We have experienced enough to know that our tradespersons and merchandisers are evil and exploitive. We have suffered enough to proclaim that our bureaucrats are snide. And our professionals are so apathetic.

Cannot trust even a doctor; going by media reports we are not lacking in our hoax surgeons. And, you know, my neighbor (for the multi-storied house he recently built, if not for other reasons) must be a fraudulent government official, or a shady land dealer.

They are not just the individuals that fare poorly in our everyday trust perceptions. We have lived enough to announce that rarely, if ever, does an ordinary citizen have a high esteem of our national institutions—the government, the court, the army, the police, etc. In fact, we have done away with the parliament altogether, and the local government, since long. Also, important intermediates, such as the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), the National Treasury (Rastra Bank), the Election Commission (EC), the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA), and, not to forget, the media, evoke similar sentiments.

And yet, studies around the world have shown that most people are honest, and trustworthy. We cannot forget this “decent” majority. And the normative logic in a democracy is that it’s the majority who gets to define or determine the trustworthiness of individuals or institutions. At the same time, we cannot ignore individual unique observations that may appear contradicting the collective attitudes.

We may cite any number of reasons for the plummeting trust in our society, chief among them being broken promises, lack of transparency, deceit, poor service delivery, etc. Or it may be merely the fear of the “others”—either political opponents or business competitors, or small-time burglars.

Sometimes, it is the unique situation that defines trust. It may sound insane to say that you just can’t distrust anyone these days. As an example, in recent times, people from some eastern Tarai districts of the country have gained exponentially in their trust capacities. I came across some farmers there who appeared upbeat that they no longer have to be suspicious of strangers prowling around their farms. They say reports of burglary or theft, common not long ago, have now become extremely rare. So much so that they leave their harvests in the fields, away from their homes, out in the open, without anybody keeping a watch over them. Like in the old days of their grandparents, now these peasants are enjoying sound sleep through the night.

In this case, trust is linked with social transformation as a result of economic expediency. Farmers explained it is not worth it anymore for the burglars to lift their grains. They earn more in wages by doing manual work in the nearby urban centers than they would have gained by selling stolen rice. Besides, half the youth from the villages are now work in the Gulf states or in East Asia, sending back hard-earned cash to their families. Nobody is in the mood to accept in kind; clearly, the trend is: give me in cash!

Unfortunately, such examples are rare in other domains of society. And perhaps here we may be merely equating famers’ growing confidence about the safety of their grains with their trust in strangers. Personal experiences can vary, with examples of genuine trust gained, and trust exhibited; credibility radiating from personal ethics, from moral values. Yes, no taxi driver has ever contacted me to return my cell phone or other belongings that I forgot to collect. But I do remember a khalasi who came running to me to return my wallet that I had dropped. Those little things do make a difference.

It is rare to hear that one of our politicians hates living in the capital, away from his constituency. And he is always with the people serving them as he promised during the election season. Our trust may depend on how often (repeat, repeat!) we hear about such politicians. Occasional theatrics, like overnight rural adventures by politicians seeking to gain in the public trust-o-meter, seem to be ineffective and even counterproductive largely because the media, another major social institution today, plays an important role interpreting such events, and shape public opinion.

The natural man, in his limited confines, had to trust his instincts, his senses. In today’s indefinite world imploding with news media channels, we are forced to rely on the journalists, their channels. As the Fourth Estate, they form another major social institution of our time. Given news media’s enormous role in reporting and authenticating facts, it is fair to ask how credible they are. And when we hear that journalists blackmail police officers, they distort facts, they serve political parties, speak for advertisers, they plagiarize, etc the image we have of them before us is that of deceptive individuals.
Individual observations are no doubt revealing, however, it is the collective perception of the public toward professionals or institutions that approximates trust in the social setting. Interestingly, despite criticism of its many flaws, the public holds the media in a much higher esteem than many other institutions. Preliminary findings from the twin surveys of journalists and public perceptions of media conducted recently by the Media Foundation in partnership with UNDP, Government of Japan and UNESCO, show that people trust media the most, followed by the court, and the CIAA. In terms of the most trusted vocations, however, the public ranked journalists in the second position, behind farmers. They were followed by government officers, doctors, army personnel, school teacher, nurses, and NGO workers. The surveys had over 3,000 respondents.

The majority of journalists see Nepali media and their content as generally trustworthy. However, many tend to see them as partisan. The public trusts TV journalists, followed by journalists of the daily newspapers and radio in that order. The public trusts journalists working with government media more than those working with the private media, or community media. The public has a favorable view of media organizations and the news/analyses written or produced by journalists. A majority of them believe that their trust in them has increased over the past three-four years.

A holistic picture of the public trust is possible not through individual observations, conjectures or sentiments, but by linking cross sections of our society, its institutions or professions to the trust factor. Unfortunately, disaggregate assessment of a national sample of journalists or the general public with hard facts and data is rare in Nepal. One reason why it is still so hard to trust any conclusion.
Published in Republica, Aug15, 2012