This is the first in a blog series from Ross Williamson, the facilitator of GRA’s upcoming ‘Mistrust and Trust in Institutions‘ series, held from May – June 2021. If you are interested to know more or would like to register your place, please email


Transparency is not about restoring trust in institutions. Transparency is the politics of managing mistrust.

Ivan Krastev

The word “trust” has a number of uses in the English language, for example in legal and financial circles, but I am concerned here with its common usage as a verb. To trust is to be in a relationship in which one party believes they can rely on the behaviour of the other. Absence of trust simply means there is no relationship. Distrust and mistrust are actual relationships, not simply absences of trust. Although they are often used interchangeably, there is a shade of difference between them; mistrust as I use it is a general attitude of suspicion towards its object, while distrust is based on specific experiences with the object. Both are also frequently defined in terms of lack of trust in the object, but I think this is misleading. Mistrust/distrust implies the presence of suspicion, and we might entertain the possibility that they can coexist in ambivalence with trust.

Given that the first years of human life cannot be survived without the reliable care of other humans, the capacity to trust, if it is not innate, must develop very early in life. Erik Erikson (1950) proposed that the development of a capacity to trust is the first crisis in the infant’s social development. Reliable care facilitates a secure, trusting attachment; the inevitable, necessary failures of care are the seeds of a capacity to mistrust.

The general tendency to seek to form trusting relationships is a legacy of our evolution as social animals. It underpins the move from family to tribe to society. Societies can only function when their members place reasonable trust in their laws and institutions – but note the qualification implied by the word “reasonable”. Whether through failure, default or deception, trustful expectations are regularly betrayed. The dialectic of trust and betrayal is deeply embedded in our existence as social beings and we acknowledge it in our cultures, from Shakespeare to Nick Cave, from Othello to People ain’t no good.

We often have no choice but to rely, however uneasily, on institutions whose integrity we have reason to doubt. I know about the sharp practices of banks, I am aware of the role corruption plays in political parties, and yet I bank and I vote. As a famous American cardsharp once said, “I know the game is crooked, but it’s the only game in town.”

Institutions and enterprises that depend upon the public trust must persuade their potential clients to put aside their misgivings in order to entrust them with their health, their finances, their children and their charitable donations. These decisions are made, frequently and perhaps inevitably, on the basis of reputation and image rather than direct experience. The business of advertising is the organised manufacture of trust and mistrust – trust for the commodity or institution, mistrust for its competitors. A primary function of advertising and the media is to persuade their audience to form favourable attitudes towards commodities, brands, and social or political opinions. To do this, they rely on explicit or implicit psychological theories of the creation of trust and mistrust.

Most of us can live with what I will call a “normal”, low level of mistrust in institutions upon which we must rely, but from time to time events occur which raise the level of general mistrust in particular institutions to the point where government must intervene or itself become compromised. The comfortably wary cynicism expressed in jokes about lawyers and politicians gives way to alarm and dismay and the demand that “something must be done about it.” In Australia this “something” regularly takes the form of a Royal Commission.

Erikson, E.H. Childhood and Society. London: Vintage Books, 1995

Next: Royal commissions and the politics of trust and mistrust

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