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[COMMENTARY] Paradox of Institutional Trust

[COMMENTARY] Paradox of Institutional Trust

As the most decorated female gymnast in history, Simone Biles, sat before the Senate with tears streaming down her face, viewers asked “How could this happen? Why didn’t anyone protect these girls?” That the same man, Larry Nasser, allegedly assaulted at least 256 others. Biles’ and the testimony of other athletes led to USA Gymnastics and abuse survivors reaching a 380 million dollar settlement because the sports organization failed to investigate, report, and protect their athletes. Parents of athletes reported in a documentary that they trusted the institution’s wholesome family-friendly public image when allowing their children to compete within the organization. Institutional trust protected an abuser from scrutiny and tragically gave USAG the benefit of the doubt for decades. Trust has its place, but that it took more than 500 victims telling their stories and crying out for justice speaks to the harm that can come from giving even a “good organization” too much benefit of the doubt.

Misplaced trust shields predatory behavior because it leads to a doubting-the-victim problem.

Most people are poor at assessing their ability to discern their own healthy skepticism when it comes to institutions. People are often inclined to find proof that their feelings are true somehow, and they’ll often discount contradictory evidence- a tendency called confirmation bias. So when evidence emerges that is counter to the wholesome view of the institution,  it becomes natural to doubt the evidence. Doubting-the-victim is subtler than “blaming-the-victim,” but its discrete nature makes it easier to go undetected.

People may initially doubt the victim’s account of events, not always because they think the victim is lying, but because the story is confusing or ambiguous, people seek out alternative explanations. A victim of sexual abuse might not be blamed for the unwanted advances, but the victim’s experience might be obfuscated through interpretations that “maybe she misunderstood”, as the USAG victims were told. That thought process may feel benign, but it obfuscates the betrayal for the victim and the community.

Institutional betrayal happens when systems harm the individuals that depend on them. The sting of institutional betrayal aggravates the traumatic effect of harassment and takes a physical and mental health toll. Abuse must be treated in the larger contexts of the social and institutional relationships which permitted or perpetuated it. Without discussing institutional betrayal, there is no path to reconciliation.

The USAG reveals organizational toxicity in hindsight, but people are notorious for believing they knew it all along, also known as the hindsight bias. In reality, only some people saw the toxicity in real-time and were not believed until cases mounted and women spoke in droves.

To be sure, trust is necessary for us as individuals, and it enables human progress as a society. Although we can have too much trust or misplaced trust, it is vital for feeling safe, engaging in meaningful collective work, and for civic engagement. It would be too existentially exhausting to not trust anything. Trust, in this way, keeps people from living in a constant fight-or-flight physiological response, which is unhealthy and unsustainable. Moreover, a lack of institutional trust can leave the sources of distrust unchecked by keeping people from calling the authorities, pressing charges, reporting to HR, and accepting medical care.

Trust, then, is a paradox: trust is necessary for social order but also blinds people to harm. Individuals often resolve this paradox blindly, without noticing how they apply judgments inconsistently and trying to rationalize reality to fit into the expectations of reality. This helps explain why so many parents failed to recognize the abuse in front of them.

Four decades of public opinion data reveal that the United States is at its peak in rating their own groups higher than others’. The increased polarization raises the likelihood people will only trust institutions they identify with and double down on their confirmation biases. The continued polarization puts victims of institutional betrayal in greater danger of being disbelieved because the stakes of institutional trust are bound with group identity.

There is a difference between constructive skepticism, which ignites agency, and cynicism which spreads defeat. A cynical approach disconnects and will not have the resolve to pursue change because change requires patient collective action. Trust should be functional and shrewd but provide enough room to question an institution when a victim courageously comes forward. Good citizenship means skeptical trust that is quick to believe only one victim and, yet still finds meaning in civic engagement.

No institution merits unconditional trust, and institutions that have lost our trust can do the hard work to regain it. A growing line of research is trying to illuminate what institutional courage looks like, which involves accountability, transparency, and a commitment to member responsiveness, especially after lapses in trust. Because, just as institutions can betray trust, they can also be restored by people who seek moral repair, accepting fault, seeking justice, and making systemic changes.

See Also

We must hold on to the benefits of trust.

Institutions that want to earn public trust have to move from basic legal compliance to implementation of evidence-based practices, like the Action Collaborative initiative in higher education which seeks to protect students from sexual harassment by sharing resources and seeking transparent evaluation and improvement. Institutions can rebuild trust by pushing for procedural transparency and voluntary public accountability.

Victim stories should not have to accumulate until they break through institutional trust fortresses. People must listen and stand with victims, pushing past the knee-jerk reaction to defend a source they trusted. But they also must avoid defeatist cynicism, which paralyzes and deflates agency for change. Good citizens hold institutions accountable and trust skeptically so society can engage in productive collective action, but not be blinded to long-lasting abuse of power.

About the Authors:

Kathryn Boucher is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Indianapolis and a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project. As a lead scholar on the Student Experience Project through the College Transition Collaborative, her work focuses upon supporting college students through and to graduation.  

Kendra Thomas is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Indianapolis and a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project. She researches youths’ perceptions of justice and works to improve positive interventions in child and adolescent development funded by the Templeton World Charity Foundation.

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