Who Do Americans Trust? The Police More Than Congress, Study Finds

Americans trust police officers, military leaders and local public officials more than members of Congress, tech leaders and journalists, according to a study published by the Pew Research Center on Thursday.

Researchers also found that the majority of Americans think that most people in positions of power behave unethically at least occasionally.

The study adds to an already robust body of research on the decline in trust in American institutions. A Pew study published in April found that trust in government was at or near historically low levels. Previous research has also shown a decline in the public’s trust of the news media.

But as this new study shows, attitudes toward people in positions of power or influence vary depending on the specific role and area of responsibility, said Lee Rainie, the director of internet and technology research at Pew Research Center.

“If fits into a bigger story that we’ve been trying to document for a while now that trust is a varied and nuanced proposition to a lot of Americans,” he said. “They don’t have yes-no answers to trust.”

The survey was conducted using a nationally representative panel of 10,618 randomly selected adults in the United States. The participants answered survey questions online between Nov. 27 and Dec. 10. The questions examined several aspects of public confidence in powerful or influential people, including whether those groups care about people, handle resources responsibly or provide accurate information. The margin of sampling error was plus or minus 3.0 percentage points.

Participants were asked about two of eight categories of people: members of Congress, military leaders, journalists, leaders of technology companies, religious leaders, police officers, local elected officials and public school principals.

Principals were the most trusted by participants on several measures: 84 percent thought they cared about their students some or most of the time. Respondents also viewed principals as less likely to display unethical behavior than virtually any other group. Only military leaders were considered comparably as ethical.

Despite a vast number of incidences of police brutality and misconduct in recent years, the police closely followed principals in several trust categories. Seventy-nine percent of participants believed that police officers care about them all or most of the time, and nearly as many think that they provide fair and accurate information.

The responses differed among racial and ethnic groups, however. Whereas more than 70 percent of white Americans said police officers treated racial and ethnic groups equally at least some of the time, just half of Hispanic Americans and only a third of black Americans said the same.

The trust divide between Congress and local elected officials was stark among Republicans and Democrats alike. Two-thirds of Americans said local elected officials cared about their constituents at least some of the time, compared with just half who said the same about members of Congress. Local elected officials were less trusted by black Americans to do their job well than white Americans, however.

In terms of providing fair and accurate information and handling resources responsibly, members of Congress were the least trusted of all powerful or influential groups. On this metric, local officials hovered in the middle between journalists and religious leaders.

Jonathan Baron, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania who studies the role of citizens in democracies, said that he was not at all surprised by the finding that trust was greater in local political leaders than in Congress. He attributed this to what he calls a “negative halo effect,” meaning an impression in one area negatively affects an impression in another.

“Congress really is dysfunctional, so the negative halo extends to its members,” Dr. Baron, who was not involved with the Pew study, said. Corruption and nepotism exist in local government, but more tends to get accomplished, he added.

“Nobody really notices the effects of these problems until the building built by a councilman’s unqualified brother-in-law falls down,” he said.

Trust in journalists varied depending on the question and the respondent’s political affiliation. Roughly half of Americans said journalists care about people like them, whereas nearly as many — 46 percent — said journalists rarely care. Republicans’ belief that journalists would fairly cover all sides of an issue (31 percent) was dramatically lower than Democrats’ (74 percent). Two-thirds of Americans think that journalists behave unethically some or most of the time.

Though most respondents believed that unethical behavior occurs among all influential people, that cynicism did not overpower a belief that those groups care about others at least some of the time. All but members of Congress and tech leaders drew a majority of Americans’ trust in this area.

Previous studies cited by the researchers have shown that there are three primary components that play a role in trust: perceptions of competence, honesty and benevolence.