Trust and Governance: 5 Insights from Psychology


The idea of trust in relationships is a key theme in our work on reimagining child protection, and a central part of many ideas put forward here about how child protection could be conducted differently.

Trust is important insofar as it exists within communities, between communities and the workers supporting them, in the interactions between individuals and networks, in interactions with institutions and organisations, and between those organisations themselves.

In a recent post for the social policy blog The Power to Persuade, Valerie Braithwaite set out five insights that the field of psychology can teach us about trust and governance. They are helpful in trying to understand the relationship between citizens and institutions, a dynamic that comes up often in the child protection context. Valerie says:

  1. People differ in their capacity to trust. Trust is socially adaptive, and we develop it from an early age. We learn trust through knowing our carers will look after us. This is reflected in good parenting, which means being consistent in providing care and being responsive to a baby’s needs.

  2. All trust ripples out from trust in family. Trust in family leads to trust in friends, then to workplaces, neighbourhoods, local authorities, and more distant government institutions (see the work of Jenny Job and Monika Reinhart at ANU). For this reason, every government should be concerned about the coherence and effectiveness of its family policy.

  3. Trust can be blocked and meet resistance. There can be push back by organisations or institutions through organisations’ breach of trust norms. Trust norms are clustered around two themes: firstly, being reliable and responsible, that is, doing what you say you will do; secondly, having empathy for others, sharing the concerns of others, and showing generosity of spirit. This is the same between individuals, or between individuals and organisations.

  4. Organisations and institutions can breach trust norms like individuals. As a result they attract distrust—at least for a time.

  5. Breaches of trust do not cause systems to collapse. But persistently ignoring the signs that trust has been breached does. There are different types of defiance of trust norms.

These insights are a helpful way to think about how organisations behave. They shed light on how trust operates in our relationship with those institutions, as well as in associated community life.

Read the more detailed post on The Power to Persuade.