Half of us think our Covid-19 response has pushed us further apart – however our trust in the institutions at the face of the response remains high, an exclusive Herald poll found.
Kiwis ranked doctors, police and scientists as significantly more trustworthy than the government, media or lawyers.
The polling, by Dynata, asked 1000 Kiwis between November 17 and 21 how they regarded seven key institutions on a scale of very trustworthy to very untrustworthy.
The poll is part of the social division segment of the Herald’s editorial project, The New New Zealand: Rebuilding Better, which is examining the drivers of division in our society after two years of Covid-19 and how we might start to heal.
More than three-quarters of respondents (78.4 per cent) said doctors were trustworthy, 69.6 per cent said police were trustworthy and 68.1 per cent considered scientists trustworthy.
On the other end of the spectrum, the poll showed New Zealanders considered media (37.6 per cent), the government (32.9 per cent) and big business (30.1 per cent) the most untrustworthy institutions of those sampled.
Lawyers were considered untrustworthy by 15.5 per cent.
University of Auckland psychologist Dr Lixin Jiang, who was the lead author of a small-scale institutional trust study in the US, said it was important people trusted their government as it affected their feeling of trust in others.
“We trust the government, we depend on them or expect them to protect us, especially in times of crisis, especially during this time, after Covid, you have the economic situation not good, so we are looking for the signal that we will be able to recover.
“It also impacts interpersonal relationships. When citizens trust their government, they have a generalised expectancy that their social environment can be relied upon.”
The Herald polling also found 64 per cent of New Zealanders felt society has become more divided in the past few years and 51 per cent thought the pandemic had helped stoke that division.
However, 57 per cent backed the Covid-19 response by agreeing with the statement “our response to Covid has been well-judged and appropriate”.
Academics consider trust, in each other and institutions, an essential part of a cohesive society.
A December 2021 report by researchers at the University of Auckland’s Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures said a modern liberal democracy was dependent on trust and accountability between people and institutions.
A baseline report from the Ministry of Social Development (MSD), published in October, identified trust in institutions as a key indicator of social cohesion.
The MSD report found although New Zealand scored relatively high when it came to a sense of belonging, wellbeing, and trust in others and in government, the findings were uneven.
Māori were less likely to trust in other people and institutions (especially police and the health sector) and recent migrants experienced higher rates of loneliness.
The Herald’s polling found few differences in the responses of men and women, except for trust in doctors.
Thirty-one per cent of men, compared with 19 per cent of women, considered doctors “very trustworthy”.
Jiang said this reflected the long-standing gender bias in medicine against women globally.
“From the history of medicine, there is gender bias. They discriminate against women, they tend to think women are crazy in their evaluation of the pain. I think [the poll finding] is a correct [reflection] of women’s general interaction with doctors.”
Director of Victoria University of Wellington’s Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, Dr Simon Chapple, has tracked institutional trust since 2016 through the IGPS Survey.
While based on different measures and questions, Chapple’s research showed similar results to the Herald polling in that medical professionals and justice sectors tended to be more trusted while media and big business were less trusted.
He said trust was highly important, especially for issues like vaccination. People who trusted their doctor were more likely to take their advice about a flu jab, for example.
“None of us are experts on everything,” Chapple said.
“Let’s take climate change for example. I could go into great detail reading up about climate change, but if I trust scientists and think scientists are trustworthy, that saves society an awful lot of time and energy since we don’t all need to become experts in climate science in order to acknowledge this is an incredibly important public issue.”
Scientists were among the most trusted institutions in the Herald polling. Only 10 per cent of New Zealanders considered them untrustworthy.
That finding pleased New Zealand Association of Scientists co-president Troy Baisden. He said the pandemic had helped highlight the work many scientists did in communicating issues to the public through media or other platforms without any extra pay.
“They do it because they think it’s important, because they think it is in the public good.”
Baisden said the Science Media Centre, which connects journalists and scientists, had made scientists more available to the media in the past decade.
“I think it’s improved the sense of trust and respect for scientists and what they do.”