Friday, July 5, 2013

How much trust can we place in a "most trusted" list?

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, July 3.)
I’ve never met Sir John Kirwan, but I’m sure he’s a nice bloke. He was a very good All Black winger, possibly even a great one (he’s one of the top 20 all-time international try scorers), and he coached the Italian and Japanese rugby teams before taking up the reins at the Auckland Blues.
He has also taken the unusual step, for a high-profile rugby figure, of admitting he has struggled with depression.

I would assume that his role as the figurehead of a campaign raising awareness of depression was one of the reasons he was named recently in a Reader’s Digest opinion survey as the most trusted New Zealander.
Kirwan seems intelligent, personable and articulate. He also seems to have a sense of public duty, and good on him for that. But the most trusted New Zealander? Really?

Not for the first time, I concluded that this survey served no purpose other than to promote the publication that sponsors it.
Put another way, it’s a gimmick designed to remind us that Reader’s Digest still exists – a fact that might otherwise be in danger of being forgotten.

The last time I wrote about one of these surveys, in 2011, I described the “most trusted” list as bizarre.
The top three that year – Sir Ray Avery, Sir Peter Gluckman and the late Sir Paul Callaghan – were all scientists. I guessed that they were chosen not so much because each had demonstrated his trustworthiness, but because people like to think of scientists as incorruptible seekers after the truth.

In other words, it’s possible they achieved their rankings because of what they did rather than who they were. After all, none were household names.
No 4 on the list that year was Justice Helen Winkelmann, chief judge of the High Court. This seemed extraordinary; probably fewer than 5 per cent of the population would have heard of her, given that she had been in the job only a short time.

I ridiculed that survey result because rather than coming up with their own nominations, respondents had been given a list of 100 names and asked to rank them. So they would have been asked to rate the supposed trustworthiness of people they might not even have heard of.
There was no logic or consistency in that 2011 list. The top 10 also included a comedian (Bret McKenzie), a fashion designer (Denise l’Estrange-Corbet) and a celebrity chef (Simon Gault).  No one could possibly have taken the findings seriously.

This year, Reader’s Digest (or to be more precise, the research firm that carried out the survey on the magazine’s behalf) did things differently. It undertook two surveys. The first supposedly determined who had caught the public imagination in the past year and the second rated how the top 100 were trusted on a scale of one-to-ten.

So, different methodology – but as a measure of trustworthiness, were the results any more credible than in 2011?
Nearly half the top 20 most trusted were sportspeople. Richie McCaw came in at No 3 (behind VC winner Willie Apiata at 2) and Peter Snell was ranked seventh.

Other sporting heroes in the top 20 included Sarah Ulmer (10), Valerie Adams (12), Dan Carter (13), Sir Colin Meads (15), Mahe Drysdale (16) and Dame Susan Devoy (17) – although whether Dame Susan was there by virtue of her sporting achievements or her performance so far as Race Relations Commissioner wasn’t clear.
The other striking feature of the poll was that after sports people, we seem to place most trust in the faces we know from television. Judy Bailey was ranked fifth, Kevin Milne ninth, Jim Hickey 11th, Nigel Latta 14th and Jo Seagar 19th.

The fact that some of these people are no longer regularly seen on screen testifies to the powerful hold television has over us. We could possibly also include in that category Alison Holst, who ranked fourth, although it’s an even longer time since she was a television fixture.
According to the publicity guff from Reader’s Digest, the survey established that to be trustworthy, “you need to be dependable and responsible, factors that placed first equal in the rankings. We also respond well to people who are inspiring, hardworking, humble, intelligent, courageous, kind, have a sense of humour and those who are generous.”

The problem is, we don’t know how most of those named behave in their private lives. One would like to think they are beyond reproach, and perhaps some are; but we see only the small part of them that is on public display. Some of them could have egos the size of Ruapehu, which might influence our perception of their trustworthiness.
In any case, we are not in a relationship of trust with sports people or TV personalities. We trust sportsmen and sportswomen to do their best and not to cheat, but that’s about as far as it goes. As for television entertainers, all we ask is that they please us. Trust hardly enters into it.

We may admire or like them, on the basis of what we know about them, but that’s different from being sure they can be trusted. That calls for a much tougher test. Try asking yourself whether you would leave your grandchildren in their care for a week, or entrust them with your life savings.
One much-loved figure who polled well in the survey was exposed by his former spouse several years ago as a wife beater and adulterer. Trustworthy? Hmmm.

I suppose what irritated me about this so-called survey, which was really little more than a popularity poll, is that trust is a hugely important part of our lives.
We trust our partners not to cheat on us. When we take the car to the garage, we trust the mechanic not to charge us for work that isn’t necessary. When we hire a builder, we trust him not to take short cuts or scrimp on materials that might cause the house to collapse in an earthquake.

When I interview someone for a newspaper or magazine article, he or she trusts me to report them fairly and accurately – quite a risk, given the consequences that could flow from being seriously misquoted.
When you think about it, a civilised, ordered society largely functions on trust. It deserves better than to be trivialised by gimmicky surveys.



Eric Crampton said...

Had pretty much the same thoughts when I'd seen that survey. I have no clue what survey respondents would have been thinking when asked about trust in this context. Trust that a product endorsed by the person is actually something the person likes? Trust that you could leave your kids with him for a weekend and everything would be fine? Such a nonsense....

Jigsaw said...

A 'survey' like this has about as much relevance as a cricketer advertising heat pumps. It says more about our society than anything else.