Reader’s Digest Trust Poll: Here’s What Shocked Us the Most

To understand how our trust instinct shapes our culture, we compiled a list of over 200 American opinion shapers and headline makers from 15 highly influential professions. Then we polled a nationally representative sample of over 1,000 American adults, asking them to rank each person based on trustworthiness. What we found: The poll results were fun and fascinating, as were these surprising lessons on whom we trust and why.

from By Courtenay Smith and Alison Caporimo | June 2013
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1. We trust people we know more than anyone famous.

We removed the three highest scorers from our list of 100—which were “your own doctor” (77%), “your own spiritual adviser” (71%), and “your own child’s current teacher” (66%)—to focus on the public figures who resonated with everyone. Still, beyond those scorers, actor Tom Hanks ranked as the most trusted figure in America.

Read the complete list: 100 Most Trusted People in America »

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2. We really trust doctors (especially if they're on TV).

Of the 15 professions tested, doctors came out on top. Among the physicians tested, TV doctors were rated as some of the most trusted individuals in the country—with Mehmet Oz, MD, Sanjay Gupta, MD, and Travis Stork, MD, all scoring in or near the top quarter of the most trusted Americans. (Nancy Snyderman, MD, of Today, came in close at No. 30!) Also striking: Doctors who are bestselling authors but do not host TV shows didn’t fare as well: Christiane Northrup, MD, Andrew Weil, MD, Susan Love, MD, and Deepak Chopra, MD, all scored in or near the bottom quarter of the top 100.

Read the complete list: 100 Most Trusted People in America »

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3. We trust TV judges more than Supreme Court justices.

Straight-talking dispute settler Judge Judy (51%) had the highest score of all the judges on our list—including all nine Supreme Court justices. Sure, her no-nonsense shtick makes us smile, but TV exposure can sway our perception of sincerity. “If I like Judge Judy, I can see her every day for an hour and connect with her,” says Robert Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “We don’t even see the President that often, let alone a Supreme Court justice.” We may appreciate tough talk in the courtroom, but we are less forgiving of verbal beat-downs of contestants. Reality-TV judges Christina Aguilera of The Voice, Howard Stern of America’s Got Talent, and Donald Trump of The Apprentice landed well outside our top 100.

Read the complete list: 100 Most Trusted People in America »

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4. Tweeting does not earn trust.

Folks with large social media audiences—like Ashton Kutcher (who has over 13 million followers on Twitter) and Lady Gaga (who has over 34 million followers)—also drifted to the bottom of our list of 200. Some like Sandra Bullock (#2) do not even have official Twitter accounts.

Read the complete list: 100 Most Trusted People in America »

5. If you're a pundit, make 'em laugh.

We trust funny pundits more than the straight ones. Witness Jon Stewart (36%) and Stephen Colbert (33%) outscoring more serious commentators such as Bill O’Reilly (30%), Chris Matthews (28%), and Rush Limbaugh (22%).

Read the complete list: 100 Most Trusted People in America »

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6. Legendary movie stars are trusted.

Talent and character matter—and knowing when to stay out of the headlines doesn’t hurt either. Good guy Tom Hanks earned the highest score, making him America’s most trusted man (65%). Sandra Bullock gracefully handled her cheating spouse and adopted a son, earning her the highest score as America’s most trusted woman (63%). Legends Denzel Washington (62%), Meryl Streep (61%), and Julia Roberts (57%) helped make movie stars one of the highly trusted professions.

Read the complete list: 100 Most Trusted People in America »

7. … but the highest-paid movie stars are not.

Twilight vixen Kristen Stewart received the lowest trust score (24%) among the female movie stars tested, despite the fact that she was the highest-paid actress in 2012, according to Forbes. Why? “Kristen Stewart’s trust [rating] was damaged when she was unfaithful,” says Dorothy Crenshaw, CEO and creative director of Crenshaw Communications. Tom Cruise is another celeb who scored low on the list, coming in last (27%) among the male stars tested, despite his $75 million salary and proven box office appeal. Experts say his ties to the Church of Scientology and related behavior might have affected his overall trust ranking. 

Read the complete list: 100 Most Trusted People in America »

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8. We don't doubt do-gooders.

The fact that doctors, educators, and philanthropists scored among our top five professions indicates that we trust people who are perceived as altruistic. As an example, consider the high score of Maya Angelou (No. 5 on our list of 100); Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates—who famously has given $36.4 billion to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to support education and health initiatives—made the top ten. Finally, Michelle Obama (53%), known for fighting childhood obesity and advocating for military families, outscored every single politician on the list (including her husband).

Read the complete list: 100 Most Trusted People in America »

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9. You can recover from mistakes, and we'll still trust you.

Clint Eastwood’s brief, televised chat with an empty chair at the 2012 Republican National Convention did nothing to erode the decades of goodwill he’s built up with the American public. He scored in the top 15 most trusted on our list. Ben Affleck has similarly revamped his playboy image, settling down with Jennifer Garner and getting to work (and earning accolades) as a director. He landed safely in the middle of the most-trusted pack.

Read the complete list: 100 Most Trusted People in America »

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10. We have to perceive that you're genuine.

It’s not a surprise that dishonesty lowers your credibility. But the “degree of hypocrisy” affects your ability to recover, says Thompson. Take Lance Armstrong, who scored a low 11%, near the very bottom of all 200-plus names tested, despite a tell-all confession to Oprah. “This guy beat cancer, he started the Livestrong movement ... then, when accusations appear, he denies them over and over with great indignation. After all of that, it comes out that he was lying the whole time. I think that’s very difficult to walk away from,” says Thompson. This may have influenced Kim Kardashian’s low score (8%), as she denies accusations by her ex, Kris Humphries, that she married for publicity rather than for love.

Read the complete list: 100 Most Trusted People in America »

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11. Winning a Nobel Prize helps!

Prizes impress us (and make you trustworthy even if you haven’t starred in a movie)! Two of the least familiar names on our list made the top 15: chemistry professors Robert J. Lefkowitz (56%) and Brian K. Kobilka (55%)—both of whom won the 2012 Nobel Prizes in their respective fields and outscoredsuch notables as Warren Buffett and Diane Sawyer.

Read the complete list: 100 Most Trusted People in America »

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12. Running a union does not help.

Although educators were one of the most trusted professions in our survey, teachers union organizers were an exception. Randi Weingarten (president of the American Federation of Teachers) and Karen Lewis (famous for helping to organize the 2012 Chicago teachers strike) scored significantly lower than local educators, college professors, and Nobel Prize–winning academics.

Read the complete list: 100 Most Trusted People in America »

13. Even some politicians made our Top 100.

Both Colin Powell (50%) and Hillary Clinton (47%) did well on our list. Think either of them will be busy in 2016? Low-scorers Sarah Palin (24%) and John Boehner (23%) still have time to turn around their trust rating before the next presidential election. We’re sure President Barack Obama (45%) expects to hold his own until then.

Read the complete list: 100 Most Trusted People in America »

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14. Funny people rule!

Crack a joke and people may be more likely to put faith in you. Ellen DeGeneres, Adam Sandler, and Ben Stiller all made our top 100 list, which can’t be said for more serious folks like Joe Biden, Rachel Maddow, and Al Gore.

Read the complete list: 100 Most Trusted People in America »

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15. We count on steady business.

Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, built one of the most popular and dependable businesses in the United States. The result: He was one of the most trusted business leaders in America with a score of 43%, beating out the CEOs of Apple (35%) and Google (36%), who didn’t break into the top 100.

Read the complete list: 100 Most Trusted People in America »

*All percentages reflect the percentage of survey-takers who rated a candidate as extremely or very trustworthy; the polling was conducted by The Wagner Group, a national marketing research company.

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