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Annabel Gillard

Kangan Malik

January 30th, 2024

Should we nudge to increase trust in institutions?

0 comments | 1 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Annabel Gillard

Kangan Malik

January 30th, 2024

Should we nudge to increase trust in institutions?

0 comments | 1 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

In this post, MSc Behavioural Science alumni Annabel Gillard and Kangan Malik explore whether trust in institutions is declining, as has been widely suggested, and if so, whether it would be ethical to nudge people to increase trust. 

This research was inspired by the extensive commentary (Murtin et al., 2018) about declining trust in institutions, the implications on our ability to take collective action in the face of global problems (from pandemics to climate change (Saka, 2021), and the disruption in political and social cohesion. The economic, social and political benefits of trust are widely published, but the panicky discourse and reflex to nudge people to increase trust in institutions seemed a bit under-supported to us. 

We wondered – how do we know that trust is declining? Is the trust declining or just the perception? There seems to be a widespread belief, but does the evidence support it? Secondly – if trust IS declining, can we identify the causes? Thirdly – is the decline in trust an accurate assessment of the effectiveness of our institutions? If so, then the appropriate intervention is not to change perceptions, but to change the institutions’ behaviour and build trust through reform and improvement.  

What is trust and why does it matter? 

To answer these questions, we investigated popular trust measures, as well as philosophical (MacLeod, 2023) and psychological (Bowles & Polanía-Reyes, 2013) literature relating to trust – its components, drivers and benefits. We found that while accounts of trust differ in terminology, they typically comprise ability (competence, effectiveness) and ethics (honesty, reliability, intent), and not only does the trust of customers benefit firms and trust amongst colleagues benefits organisational effectiveness, conversely the betrayal of trust causes psychological and even physical injury that can be traumatic and lasting (Kidwell & Kerig, 2021). Better understanding the value of trust and the cost of getting it wrong, we concluded that great care needs to be taken by anyone considering a behavioural intervention to ‘nudge’ perceptions of trust. To falsely inflate trust would be unethical and counterproductive – both to the institution and to the nudger. 

How trust is measured?

There are multiple components to identifying trust:

  • How the public relates to the institution – this can be assessed in two ways: self-reported perception surveys and observed behaviour. 
  • How the institution relates to the public – the behaviour of the institution to the public and their communication around this behaviour. 
  • The environmental context in which this relationship takes place. 

Comparing the OECD’s trust survey, the UN trust survey and the Edelman trust barometer we found a mixed and incomplete picture. We found that of the above three components, only the first is considered in the measures of trust we examined – and only OECD measures behaviour in addition to self-reported perception. 

Key Findings

Component 1 – surveyed trust 

These surveys showed different pictures over the last 20 years with Edelman aggregate scores showing a recent increase, in contrast to the decrease shown by OECD and the UN. However, digging deeper into the Edelman data identifies that these aggregate scores disguise divergent trends in different socioeconomic groups. Broadly speaking, those who are prospering have higher levels of trust than those who are struggling. Geographical trends were broadly similar, albeit with small differences by country.  

The OECD compares perception to behaviour and finds that behaviour implies a greater level of trust than is self-reported. This anomaly calls into question the reliability of self-reports. This also brings us to think critically if behavioural perception is yet to catch the attitudinal perception or if social media has changed the attitudinal perception because of misinformation, homophily and echo chambers (Pennycook et al., 2020).

On the basis of this research, the case for declining institutional trust was not clear-cut. 

Component 2 – institutional trustworthiness 

Trustworthiness is much harder to measure – we found no measures in general use that grapple with this question. There has been very little commentary on its importance or that it may be a necessary condition when considering public trust beyond the eminent philosopher Oonora O’Neill. We consider this as an under-researched area and note that new techniques facilitated by technological developments would be worth exploring in future analysis.   

Component 3 – the trust environment 

There have been profound changes to the environment in which we consume information and interact with institutions and with each other. For institutions decades and centuries old, the internet only became ubiquitous 20-25 years ago and social media is younger still (Song & Lee 2016). This change to the information and trust-building environment is not captured in the surveys, which only came into existence after the internet made such surveys cost-effective. It is likely that this has had an impact on trust, but we were not able to test this empirically. If readers of this blog know of measures that date back earlier, we would love to hear about them. 

Other environmental effects on trust could include the economic environment, political environment, and factors relating to well-being and health, amongst other external factors. 


We have concluded that the assessment of current public trust in institutions is a mixed picture, and may not justify some of the more hysterical commentary. We speculate that changes in the relationship between the public and the institutions that serve us might be expected given the environmental changes. This may be a fruitful area of research if empirical data can be found for the pre-internet age, or if new technological tools make analysis possible. The difference between stated perceptions and behaviour is intriguing and raises questions about how literally we should interpret stated perceptions.

In answering the questions we posed at the start of this study: is it possible to design an intervention to increase trust, and is it ethical to design an intervention to increase trust? 

We conclude that the lack of a measure of trustworthiness is critical, as without this we cannot identify whether there is a disconnect between perception and reality. If declining trust represents declining trustworthiness, then institutional reform to rebuild trust would be more ethical than nudging the public to confer unwarranted trust in the institution. It would also be beneficial to understand environmental effects and to be able to identify where a falling trend may be signalling other difficulties and prove transitory. Although it would be possible to design an intervention to increase trust, it would not be ethical to do so – unless we can be sure that the trust perceptions are inaccurate.

  • The opinions in this post are of the authors, not of the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science or LSE.
  • All images licence-free from Canva.


  1. Bowles, S., & Polanía-Reyes, S. (2013). Economic Incentives and Social Preferences: Substitutes or Complements? (Part 1). Voprosy Ekonomiki, 4, 24–48.
  2. Edelman annual trust report:
  3. Kidwell, M. C., & Kerig, P. K. (2021). To trust is to survive: Toward a developmental model of moral injury. Journal of Child & Adolescent Trauma, 1-17​
  4. McLeod, C.,  in Edward N. Zalta & Uri Nodelman (eds.). (2023). “Trust”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  5. Murtin, F. et al. (2018) Trust and its determinants, Home Page. Available at: 
  6. OECD report on trust in government:
  7. Pennycook, G., Epstein, Z., Mosleh, M., Arechar, A. A., Eckles, D., & Rand, D. G. (2020). Understanding and reducing the spread of misinformation online. PsyArXiv Preprints.
  8. Saka, O. (2021). Covid-19 eroding youth trust in political leadership and institutions: LSE research, COVID-19 eroding youth trust in political leadership and institutions |
  9. Song, C.,  & Lee, J. (2016). Citizens’ Use of Social Media in Government, Perceived Transparency, and Trust in Government, Public Performance & Management Review, 39:2, 430-453​.
  10. UN report on trust in institutions:

About the author

Annabel Gillard

With a background in investment management, Annabel is investigating the place of ethical values and organisational culture in an AI-driven future workplace, and its impact on the changing nature of work and society and the role of ethics in building trust in a digital economy.

Kangan Malik

Kangan is a Behavioral Product Manager with over 7 years of experience in developing AI-based fintech and Investment Banking products. Having educational foundations in Computer Science and Behavioural Science, she specialises in integrating artificial intelligence and behavioural science into innovative business models. Kangan is dedicated to facilitating organisations in the creation of ethical emerging tech digital products.

Posted In: Alumni | Behavioural Economics | Behavioural Science | Behavioural Science and the Wider World

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