November 16, 2009

Losing Confidence: Americans and Social Institutions

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

Do you feel less confidence in the government? In corporations? In the press?

If so, your feelings reflect a general trend found in the most recent data from the General Social Survey, a nationally representative household survey taken every other year of American attitudes on a variety of issues. Since 1973 the survey has asked respondents how much confidence they have in a variety of American social institutions. Their 2008 survey results suggest that the public has less confidence in every major social institution (except the military) compared with 2006.

Looking at year-to-year trends might not tell us very much, but if we examine the more than 35 years of data we can see some interesting patterns and think about why Americans might have less faith in various institutions.

Our declining confidence in the news media is rather clear in the graph below. For the past fifteen years, the percentage of people having a great deal of confidence has hovered at or below just ten percent. There are likely many reasons for this, but I suspect that the blending of opinion with reporting—especially on cable news—is partly responsible. If “the news” seems to just be someone’s opinion, especially if it is constructed to influence our political views in one direction or other, we might be less likely to see the press as a reliable source of information. As I blogged about last year, journalism as an industry is in danger, and this loss of confidence is likely a big part of the reason.

By contrast, far more people reported a great deal of confidence in the press in the mid-1970s, in the years following the Watergate scandal and the subsequent resignation of President Richard Nixon. Investigative journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein broke the story of what seemed like a minor burglary of the Democratic National Committee headquarters and continued to pursue the story, revealing a major cover-up.


Not surprisingly, these revelations led to a sharp decline in those who felt a great deal of confidence in the executive branch of the federal government, from 29 percent in 1973 to 14 percent in 1974, as you can see in the graph below. Unlike confidence in the press, confidence in the executive branch of government—which mostly refers to the president—has had many peaks and valleys in the last few decades. Confidence can rise and fall rather quickly.

Most recently, we can see that close to 28 percent felt a great deal of confidence in 2002, just following the terrorist attacks in 2001. But that number fell to 11 percent in 2008, as President George W. Bush’s approval ratings sunk and the economy fell into recession.


Not surprisingly, with news of the collapse of the financial and automotive industries, confidence in major companies fell to the lowest point in General Social Survey history: from a high of 32 percent in 1974, 1984, and 1987 to 16 percent in 2008.


This is a meaningful decline. President Calvin Coolidge famously said that “the business of America is business”. For the past several decades American confidence in business largely reflected this sentiment, that major companies would lead us towards prosperity and opportunity. Scandals in recent years, such as Enron’s massive fraud in the energy market, led to declines in confidence after the financial boom of the 1990s.

These are just a few institutions with declining American confidence, according to the General Social Survey. Medicine, science, and religion are some of the many other institutions that Americans feel less confident about. What does this loss of confidence mean in the grand scheme of things?

It’s possible that mistrust of several major institutions can impact the way we view other institutions, even if there has been no significant reason to doubt them. For instance, despite the advice of public health officials, a large proportion of the population reports that they don't want to be vaccinated for the H1N1 virus. Some just aren’t interested, but others don't trust government officials; some even view calls to get vaccinated as a government conspiracy for control or profit.

When major institutions lose their legitimacy with a large proportion of the public, people are likely to disengage from these institutions, and maybe even ignore important information they provide. What sociological theories do you think might explain why Americans seem to trust social institutions less?


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On a large scale, I believe that people's trust in social institutes are derived from ignorace alone. There are simply "more important" things that distract people, especially young people who are graduating into the age bracket of "adulthood." As a side note, people seem to find things like government conspiracy and scandal as more interesting and more indicative than fact. And with the influx of mass media, people seem less likely, as you said, to trust information as truth and classify it as biased opinion. As for redirecting the young people's attitudes toward social issues, the answer seems almost unattainable; and perhaps this is another reason why people fear to involve themselves. People fear that their opinions might be misconstrued or not taken seriously or simply too small to make an impact upon the world and a government which seems to ignore the little man and glorify rich, pompous politicians. But, as Ernest Hemmingway once wrote, and I roughly quote, "if you want to trust, you have to start by trusting."

People's mistrust in major institutions can come from a variety of sources. The mistrust in the media can be due to a skewed view of a particular issue that ultimately affects all of society. Several people also believe that the media can me persuaded to alter the actual truth of a story based upon bribes or promises. The government mistrust can be generated from the faulty and previous deceptions released by the government to put the people at ease, which in turn causes an uproar breaks out when the truth is revealed. Watergate for example caused an enormous uproar within the political society and the media which lead to distrust in our government and even some media with how they presented the information to the public. With the economy the way it is today, no wonder there is mistrust within society.

I think the statistics show an up and down trend in mistrust with the government. I think its individual events that make people have mistrusts in the government. But as a whole, i think America has confidence in the government. If they didn't it would show in the crime rate increasing and unemployment rate increasing dramatically. It shows in the stability in the statistics that mistrust occurs but not enough for America to totally go against the government.

I already commented

I believe that social institutions are being trusted less due to the everlasting political persuasion brought about by the media. The media decides to cover stories and portray them the way that they want to portray them. The opinions of viewers are therefor swayed in all sorts of directions. In the end, the information used for the media is all jumbled up. This creates less confidence in social institutions because civilians can never get a straight story without having it swayed by politics. For me, my confidence in social institutions has decreased dramatically. I found that media has never been a reliable source for important information.

I thank you for giving the actual dates, and you gave graphs. You are very well presented with your facts. :)

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