The decline of trust

Flawed humans are more trusted than perfect machines.

November 2017. Uber hits the headlines (again) for covering up a data breach that affected 57 million customers and drivers.

November 2017. Fitness tracking company, Strava, publish a global heatmap of users' activity. “The largest, richest, and most beautiful dataset of its kind,” they say. What they don’t realise is that soldiers’ running routes reveal locations of secret US army bases in places like Afghanistan and Syria.

Can you spot fake news?

December 2017. The BBC launches a new scheme to help young people tell the difference between real and fake news. This follows a study that revealed many are unable to make the distinction.

This is the world we live in. We fend off attacks on our privacy. We buy beautiful, five-star-rated things that turn out ugly. We follow many – communities, companies, the media – but we trust few.

The decline of trust

The 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer reveals ‘a world of seemingly stagnant distrust.’ Even if that’s true, people do trust. We have to. We trust doctors to keep us heathy. We trust teachers with our children. We trust mechanics to keep us on the road.

For the first time, the trust barometer reports that the media is the least trusted institution globally.

The demise of confidence is driven primarily by a significant drop in trust in platforms, notably search engines and social media. Sixty three percent of respondents say they do not know how to tell good journalism from rumour or falsehoods or if a piece of news was produced by a respected media organisation. This lack of faith has also led to an inability to identify the truth. 
Edelman Trust Barometer

Have we really lost the ability to identify truth?

We have more choice today than ever before. A few short decades ago, there were three TV news channels in the UK. Now there are hundreds. Factor in the internet and that number multiplies exponentially. They’re not all saying the same thing - so who’s version of the truth do you trust? 

As trust in the media and our peers declines, personal experience becomes ever more important. Positive consumer experiences reinforce our decision to trust this news site or that company.

Surprise, surprise – people don’t trust financial services

Media might be the least trusted institution but financial services has long been one of the least trusted sectors.

For insurance, perhaps that’s because opportunities to experience making a claim are mercifully few. It follows that opportunities to build trust are few, too. And if we do have a poor customer experience, opportunities to rebuild that trust are fewer still, unless lightning strikes twice.

Research shows that a majority of people don’t trust insurers to pay out. Yet Aviva’s UK claims report shows the reality for Aviva UK in 2017 is: 


of claims were accepted


was paid in cash settlements and services


was paid out every day


was paid out every minute

Other insurers have shared similar claims data. So, if numbers and percentages aren’t enough to convince us to trust insurers – and clearly, they aren’t – what is?

Aviva’s own reputation research shows that in insurance, in addition to service, reducing the complexity of products and building human relationships rather than transactional ones drive trust.

We also found that when a sector is not trusted, innovation is looked upon negatively and for the benefit of the industry and not the customer. Whereas for trusted companies, innovation is viewed as beneficial for consumers.

Raj Kumar, Aviva’s Corporate Reputation Director

Flawed human vs perfect machine

As innovation and automation increases, so does the debate around its trustworthiness.

Would you go to a robot doctor? Would you entrust your child’s education to a robo-teacher? Would you feel safe in a driverless car? Many wouldn’t.

Studies show trustworthiness isn’t as much about judgements as how they are made. Judgements, even perfect judgements, based on cold calculation of consequences aren’t enough. We want machines to suffer the same sense of moral duty humans do.

Research indicates, too, that uncalculating cooperation signals trustworthiness. Husbands, wives, friends: there are some people we would unquestioningly do anything for, without a thought for our own best interests.

Would you trust a machine over a human?

But who ever heard of a morally literate machine that makes judgements without calculating the consequences? Essentially, a machine that makes mistakes.

It’s illogical, but there it is. When it comes to trust, humans are irreplaceable.

From media to insurance, whatever the reason, who we trust influences where we spend our money, and where we don’t. The unignorable challenge for companies seeking long-term growth is how to earn trust, and how to keep it.


Gwen Warrilow

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