How big of an impact has COVID-19 had on trust? Many predictions of significant change during the pandemic have proved to be premature as people hunkered down: generally existing trends were accelerated rather than new forces emerging.
This pattern also holds true for trust in professions. The Ipsos Global Trustworthiness Monitor, which has assessed the extent to which the worldwide public trust a range of different professions since 2018, offers us an opportunity to measure the extent to which the impact of living through the pandemic has affected how far the global public trust different types of people.
The data tells us that the impact of the pandemic has been very limited and any slight pandemic gains have now been lost. Instead, the pandemic appears to have had more of a lasting impact on how sectors of business are viewed.
The main takeaway is that the pandemic has been fairly neutral in terms of overall levels of trust. Many professions have seen little to no impact on their trustworthiness scores: for instance, trust in the ordinary person, members of the armed forces and the police has been kept within a range of just a few percentage points over all four waves of our research.
This reinforces our core thinking on the topic of trust, which is that it is a slow-changing phenomenon whose inertia is tied to the deep-held values that define us as individuals. Consider the example of news: we could expect that people might change which website they go to for news quite regularly, but that their perception of the trustworthiness of journalists as a profession might change less.
The 3 least trusted professions 2018-2022
Some of the most notable shifts we have seen were among the least trusted professions.
While politicians remain rooted to the bottom of the table, they have benefitted from the past few years – albeit very slightly. Across 22 countries where we have been tracking trust since 2018, 12% now find politicians trustworthy, up from just nine per cent in 2018. Those in government have seen a similar, gentle, boost from eight per cent in 2018 to 12% this year.
Underneath this headline we can see different trajectories through the pandemic: for instance trust has risen more in India and Germany, which each saw a seven-point increase in trust in politicians from 2018-2022 (from 21% to 28% and from 11% to 18% respectively). In contrast, politicians in Sweden and Great Britain have seen their stock fall: trust fell seven points in Sweden from 22% to 15%, while Britain saw a five-point drop, from 16% to 11%.
We also found a slight uptick for advertising executives, who are now one point ahead of government ministers in 2022 after being level with them in previous years.
The pattern for 2022 shows a light rebound to pre-pandemic trust levels for all three professions. The proportion rating all three categories as untrustworthy rose between this year and last. For ad execs, distrust leapt from 39% to 45%, while for politicians and government ministers the rebound was more subtle, at two percentage points each.
This sense of a slight rebound towards where we were before can also be felt at the top, among the world’s most trusted professions who are returning to the levels of trust recorded pre-pandemic.
Top 5 trusted professions 2018-2022
For the Ipsos Global Trustworthiness Monitor, the story of the pandemic was of doctors replacing scientists as the world’s most trustworthy profession. Between 2018 and 2021, the proportion finding physicians to be trustworthy rose from 55% to 64%, while scientists saw only a twopoint increase, from 59% to 61%: it appeared that those holding the syringe containing the COVID-19 vaccine saw a bigger benefit in public trust than those who developed its contents.
In 2022, doctors have come down from their pandemic high – trust is down six points to 58%. This puts them in a statistical tie with scientists, whose score has been steadier over the years. Looking across countries, we see the same pattern, although often more extreme as countries where trust in the medical profession has traditionally been lower return to normal. This rollercoaster-like trajectory is most pronounced in Hungary, where trust in doctors dropped by 21 percentage points between 2021 and 2022, after soaring by 19 points between 2019 and 2020. But we also saw big falls in trust in doctors in Poland (-16), Italy, Turkey and Malaysia (all -11).
Teachers, who have been the third most trustworthy profession in all years of the survey, have not been excluded from this pattern either. After experiencing a bump in trustworthiness between 2018 and 2021, this year sees them falling back, with 51% now considering them trustworthy.
The impression given by the 2022 data is that trust in professions is returning to “normal”. After some short-lived increases in the professions closest to dealing with the pandemic – doctors, scientists, teachers and politicians – people are now returning to their long-held perceptions of the value and trustworthiness of these professions. For higher-trust professions this is no big deal: doctors and scientists have long been the most trusted and remain as such. It may be more of a problem for politicians, who tend to attract limited public trust, making any loss more significant.
If the past is our guide, we are likely to see similar results to 2022 in 2023: especially at the global level, there has been little to dislodge our pre-formed opinions about how far we trust doctors and politicians. And the way we interact with different groups hasn’t changed much either, so our everyday experiences will reinforce what we already think
Where we see the potential for further change is at the sector level. Most also saw pandemic boosts, but unlike with professions these have been retained into 2022. The pharmaceutical industry and food & drink companies are the standouts. Globally they are in the top three most trusted sectors, with a third saying they find them trustworthy (34% and 33% respectively). Since 2019, their trust scores have risen by nine and eight percentage points.
If this pattern persists it poses interesting opportunities for those looking to build trust. How can individual professions or companies connect their lower personal perceptions with the improved standing of their industries more broadly?