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The hierarchy of trust

Rory Fitzgerald / Nov 2023

Image: Shutterstock

 

The European Social Survey (ESS) has asked respondents to indicate how much they trust institutions since Round 1 was fielded 20 years ago.

In the latest round of our survey (2020-22) we asked people in 31 countries how much they trust the country’s police, legal system, parliament, political parties, politicians, European Parliament and United Nations.

All questions were answered on the same 11-point response scale, ranging from 0  (no trust at all) to 10 (complete trust). The use of an 11-point scale means we have a definitive mid-point (5).

Over a decade ago, the late, co-founder of the ESS - Sir Roger Jowell - presented a hierarchy of trust based on Round 5 (2010/11) data: whilst absolute levels of trust differed between countries data from all countries showed the same hierarchy of trust with most trust being reported for the police, then the legal system, national parliaments and finally politicians.

By assessing our latest dataset, we explored whether this pattern still holds.

Mean scores for each country are calculated using post-stratification weights. *Denotes data collected using self-completion methods

Only in seven of the 31 participating countries was trust in the police below the mid-point of the response scale.

Highest levels of public trust in the police were found in Finland (7.31), Norway (7.67), Switzerland (7.42), Iceland (7.38), Estonia (7.37) and the Netherlands (7.13).

Trust in the legal system is also relatively high, but not as high as the police in almost all countries, though the difference between the two in some countries is negligible.

Mean scores for each country are calculated using post-stratification weights. *Denotes data collected using self-completion methods

The highest performing legal systems are found in Norway (7.56), Finland (7.47), Switzerland (6.94), the Netherlands (6.62), Greece (6.41) and Estonia (6.33).

When it comes to trust in the legal system, respondents from nine of the 31 countries reported means below the mid-point of the scale (5).

Mean scores for each country are calculated using post-stratification weights. *Denotes data collected using self-completion methods

When it comes to trust in the national parliament, mean scores again tend to drop slightly from the levels of trust in the legal system.

Whilst the countries with relatively high levels of trust in the police and legal system again perform well here, it is notable that only seven countries received mean scores above the mid-point of the scale.

And, when it comes to politicians, trust in all countries is lower still.

Mean scores for each country are calculated using post-stratification weights. *Denotes data collected using self-completion methods

Only in four countries - Switzerland, Norway, Finland and the Netherlands - are mean scores for trust in politicians above the mid-point of the scale.

Considering all four the hierarchy of trust has remained relatively stable since Sir Roger considered these measures in 2011.

Only in five of the 31 countries does the pattern not completely hold true, though even in some of these countries the difference is insignificant.

As well as these items included in every round, a new question on trust in scientists was fielded as part of our special COVID-19 module fielded in 2020-22.

This question was asked in 27 of the 31 countries on a voluntary basis, and the results add another dimension to the hierarchy: Scientists are generally more trusted than the police, legal system, parliament and politicians.

Mean scores for each country are calculated using post-stratification weights. *Denotes data collected using self-completion methods

This is the case in 24 of the 27 countries that fielded this question - the only deviations were found amongst respondents in Finland, Norway and Switzerland where trust in the police was deemed higher than trust in scientists.

And, even in these three countries, levels of trust across all five measures were relatively high.

In fact, trust in scientists in all countries was above the mid-point of the scale in all 27 countries - ranging from a low of 6.21 in North Macedonia to a high of 8.13 in Spain.

So, whilst there has been some national variation in the levels of trust in the police, legal system, parliament and politicians over the past decade, the same pattern of trust emerges.

Respondents across all countries are most likely to have the most faith in the police, then legal system, then Parliament and finally politicians.

Furthermore, in almost all countries, trust in scientists is higher still.

The European Social Survey Round 10 dataset includes data from 31 countries who fielded the survey from late 2020 to the middle of 2022.

Due to measures implemented in some countries to prevent the spread of Coronavirus, we allowed nine countries to field the latest round of our survey using self-completion methods for the first time. These are denoted throughout the charts in this article using (*). The remaining 22 countries conducted fieldwork in line with all previous rounds of our survey: using only face-to-face interviews.

All data analysis included in this article was undertaken with design and post-stratification weights. All ESS data are freely available for non-commercial use via the ESS Data Portal.

 

Rory Fitzgerald

Rory Fitzgerald

November 2023

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