Who do you trust? The pandemic shows the strategic value of experts in public perception

By David Donaldson

Thursday July 9, 2020

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We’re more likely to support a policy knowing it’s endorsed by experts. Even US Republicans will support action on climate change when told the Pentagon is worried about it.

Aaron Martin
Aaron Martin

If you’ve felt reassured to see chief health officers playing a key policy and communications role during the coronavirus pandemic, you’re not the only one.

Leveraging the trustworthiness of the medical profession to convince the public to fundamentally shift their behaviour seems to have paid off — and was likely more effective than if the prime minister led communications.

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“They’ve been actually quite strategic in placing the chief scientific officers in front of the public,” says Associate Professor Aaron Martin, who studies public trust at the University of Melbourne.

“Our research supports that that’s actually a pretty good strategy, given that they are more likely to be trusted than the government.”

Who we trust

“This is a really interesting time for trust,” Martin tells The Mandarin.

“If we look at the last Australian Election Study, political trust was at historic lows, and satisfaction with democracy, which has traditionally been a lot higher in Australia than comparable democracies, has actually declined quite precipitously.”

Politicians are among the least-trusted people in our society — only a few groups, such as stockbrokers, real estate agents and car salespeople, invoke more suspicion.

Nurses, doctors and pharmacists, on the other hand, are the most highly trusted professions — and research shows people are more likely to have confidence in information from credible sources.

Confidence in the public service sits higher than for politicians, but still has plenty of room for improvement.

We need only look to the United States to see just how damaging deep distrust can be, but even in Australia, there’s concern low trust in government threatens the efficacy of public policy.

So to test out the impact of sources on policy messaging, Martin and his colleagues at the Policy Lab set up an experiment around the use of antibiotics and microbial resistance.

They presented respondents with a proposal to restrict antibiotic use, and told half it was endorsed by “the government in Canberra”, and the other half that it was recommended by “Australia’s leading medical scientists”. The statement looked like this:

“[The government in Canberra/Australia’s leading medical scientists] believe that an effective way to address this problem is to more closely monitor and regulate how medical professionals prescribe antibiotics. Accordingly, [the government in Canberra/Australia’s leading medical scientists] have put forward a proposal whereby they would monitor how many antibiotics medical professionals are prescribing and, where necessary, enforce that they prescribe less.”

Respondents then rated how much they supported the idea. Those told it was endorsed by the scientists were more likely to agree to the proposal, at 98.5%, compared to those told it was the government’s idea, at 85.1%.

This shows just how useful experts can be in pushing for policy reform, Martin and colleague Senior Lecturer Erik Baekkeskov argue in a research memo:

“Our experiment was on anti-microbial resistance but can be mapped onto COVID and other policy issues very easily. It provides some initial evidence that trusted sources should be enlisted to develop and gain support for policies to tackle pressing public health and societal challenges.”

In a situation such as a pandemic, where government messaging can impact personal behaviour, which flows through to infection rates, this potentially has a significant impact.

The message is clear, Martin says: “government and public agencies need to be careful about how they frame policies.”

Trust and controversy

It is unclear how well these results transfer to more contested policy problems, however.

There is not a lot of debate about overuse of antibiotics, or the need to suppress the pandemic.

“There are actually not that many policy problems where you’ve got a problem that’s so visible and defined, and the consequences of it are very clear. Then you’ve got an agreed-upon solution, more or less,” says Martin.

Where there’s less agreement about the nature of the problem, or how to address it, experts may not be as compelling. People probably wouldn’t as readily accept the Treasury secretary’s word on a contentious tax issue, for example.

It also depends on the expert.

“Not all experts are trusted obviously. We know medical experts are more trusted than others. In some ways it’s probably dependent on the nature of the issue.”

But this approach can be effective when targeting certain groups.

The work on antibiotics was inspired by an experiment in the United States on climate change policy. Republicans are less likely to approve of climate change interventions — but they also trust the military, which is doing a lot of work on climate change because it sees climate destabilisation as a threat to national security.

“They found that Republicans became much more supportive of climate change action when it was framed as a military-endorsed, or military-led, policy, as opposed to an Environmental Protection Agency policy.”

Other research done at the Policy Lab shows process has an impact on trust too. While cynics often question whether citizens really care about integrity issues — as opposed to substantive policy — the research says they do.

“People evaluate the policy very differently according to whether it’s been developed in a fair and transparent way, or an unfair and un-transparent way,” he explains.

This provides another opportunity for framing.

“Government and public agencies should try and advertise the process they’ve used to arrive at decisions. That’s not to say everyone’s going to agree with the decision, but I think there’ll be a higher rate of acceptance if people are aware of that.”

The impact of the pandemic on trust

One interesting issue is the effect the coronavirus will have on trust in the long term.

The pandemic has been a very clear demonstration of the value of quality administration.

In the UK, which has seen a big policy U-turn, a high number of infections and a major scandal over prime ministerial adviser Dominic Cummings’ breaking isolation rules, trust in government as a source of reliable information has plummeted.

On the other hand, the most recent Australian Leadership Index report reveals a big jump in Australians’ trust in government to exercise leadership for the greater good.

“It’s pretty clear trust has gone up quite substantially in a number of different countries, at least in the countries where governments have been pretty effective,” says Martin.

“But what happens to that as we get back to normal, as we get back to issues parties don’t agree on, that citizens don’t agree on, that are intractable by nature? I think we’ll probably see a drop-off of that trust.”

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