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Social Trust Is Lower Than You Think

Ulrich Boser 0

A number of researchers have shown that social trust has been in a long and steady tailspin. One recent AP-Gfk poll found that "only one-third of Americans say most people can be trusted."

But the problem might be worse than many believe, and when I recently looked at trust by state from the advertising firm DDB Worldwide Communications Group, I found that in some states the percent of people who reported complete levels of trust was basically zero.

Political scientists have documented all sorts of reasons for the recent collapse in social cohesion. Some like Eric Uslaner blame economic inequality. Others like Robert Putnam points the finger at generational change along with sprawl and changing technologies.

Whatever the exact cause⎯-and it's almost certainly a mix⎯-the bottom line is that we’ve lost a crucial sense of our social fabric, and when I looked closely at the data, I found that in some states like Tennessee almost no one reported completely trusting strangers.

Think about that for a moment. In some states, almost no one believes that the new people that they meet are fully trustworthy.

I'm not the first person to dig into the data from DDB Worldwide Communications Group. In the 1990s, Robert Putnam mined the dataset pretty thoroughly for his seminal book Bowling Alone, and more recently, Matthew Nagler used the data to show that stronger social capital influences car crashes.

There are some throat-clearing caveats, though, and the DDB Worldwide Communications Group data dates back to 2008 and 2009. (We combined the years to make more robust state-level estimates.) Also note that respondents answer on a scale, from answering not all to trusting completely, and for the data above on Tennessee, for instance, I just reported on the percent of people who indicated that they trusted others completely. In other areas in the book and in other writings, I've sliced the data somewhat differently.

If you want to dig into some of the state-by-state data yourself⎯and you should⎯you can find some of the key indicators in this spreadsheet. It includes the data on trust in government and trust in people that you meet for the first time.

Looking forward, there are a few take-aways. For individuals, it's important to keep in mind that the people that you're dealing with at work or at school are skeptical. They're cynical. They want you to prove that you are, in fact, trustworthy, as Roderick Kramer has argued.

More importantly for society, there's the issue of a lack of social cohesion. What can we do to bring ourselves together? How we can we develop a greater sense of community?

There are no easy answers, but one thing is clear. We need to be more inclusive. We need to reach out more to people who are different than us, because it's easy to trust people who share your background, according to experts like Putnam. In fact, one recent study found that we're more likely to cooperate with people who share the same knowledge as us. What's much harder is trusting people that are different from you, and in some areas like Mississippi, my research on the DDB Worldwide Communications Group data suggests only about 1 percent of people said that they totally trust someone from a different race.

In this way, I think journalist Robert Wright started to sketch out at least one promising solution when he argued that: "The world's biggest single problem is the failure of people or groups to look at things from the point of view of other people or groups--i.e. to put themselves in the shoes of "the other." I provide a long list of policy solutions to improve our faith in others in this guide. As for individuals, we might take the advice of Wright and realize that rebuilding our faith in others might start with doing more to understand the thinking of others.

Note: A huge thanks to Chris Callahan at DDB Worldwide Communications for her assistance. I'm also grateful to Stephen Goggin, who did the actual data analysis. Also portions of this blog entry have appeared before in other work by Ulrich Boser, including his forthcoming book The Leap: The Science of Trust and Why It Matters.

The Simple Power of Tit for Tat

Ulrich Boser 2

Why do we work with others? In many ways, the answer is simple. It’s about reciprocity. I do something for you. You do something for me, and often one of the easiest ways to build up faith in someone else is to exchange favors, to engage in reciprocity.

Think, for instance, about how you might become friends with the accountant at work. First, you might swing past his or her desk to talk about how hot its been outside. Then perhaps that accountant comes past to talk to you about the new CEO. Then you invite the accountant out for coffee one afternoon, and, then, if you're really going to become friends, you might plan for some sort of weekend activity. Maybe you go to a bar? Or a baseball game? In short, you exchange invitations and activities until something deeper evolves, something more intimate, a friendship. Or as New York Times columnist David Brooks once argued, "Trust is reciprocity coated by emotion."

NPR reporter Alix Spiegel had a wonderful piece on reciprocity a few years ago, and the thing about the practice is that it's easy to underestimate, as Spiegel points out. We engage in reciprocity so much that we often don’t realize it. But quid pro quo is one of those social rules that govern almost every exchange, and there are no shortage of examples of how embedded reciprocity is within our sense of culture. In Bulgarian, the word for Thank you translates roughly as, Good, I’ll give a gift back. In India and Japan, families will sometimes use ledgers to track the value of gifts so that when they have to return the favor, they will give something of equal value.

Take, for instance, this widely cited study by psychologist David Strohmetz, which Spiegel mentions briefly in her article. For the research, Strohmetz tapped an undergraduate student—let’s call her Nicole—who worked as a waitress at an Italian restaurant. It was a casual sort of place: red-checkered tablecloths, bottles of straw-basket Chianti, and lots of spaghetti on the menu.

Nicole had worked at the Italian restaurant for a few years, and as part of the experiment, she began randomly choosing diners who would receive a little chocolate with their bill. In the control group, Nicole delivered the bill and nothing else. For a second group of diners, Nicole gave them the check and two pieces of chocolate. In those instances, the diners gave a little bit more of a tip. It seemed that they liked the candy, but it didn’t sway them. It didn’t make their evening.

For a third group, Strohmetz added a crucial variation. When Nicole brought the check to the diners, she gave each customer one piece of chocolate. Then, just as she was leaving the table, she stopped, held out a candy basket, and gave the customers the choice of one additional piece of chocolate. It was an obvious gesture. Nicole made it seem like she really wanted to do those particular diners a favor, and the results were unequivocal: The people who had received the special gesture gave a 21 percent larger tip than those in the control group. They felt indebted—and they paid it back in cash.

On one hand, the experiment makes perfect sense for our cooperative-primed mind. Someone gave you something. Of course, you should give them something back. That’s what’s fair. That’s what’s right. But there’s also something curious about the study. After all, the customers received an extra candy that they did not ask for. Maybe they didn’t want it. And frankly, it seems painfully blatant that the waitress was gunning for a tip. She gave the customers the bill for the meal—and then with a ham-handed flourish, she handed them some chocolates.

Even Strohmetz himself was startled by the results. He knew people had some sort of reciprocal instincts. He just didn’t think it would be that strong. “Tips are supposed to be based on quality of service, based on the size of the bill,” he told me.

When it comes to social trust, there are two simple lessons. For individuals, the take-away is that the easiest way to build up a sense of faith with someone that you don't know is to engage in reciprocity. When you engage in Tit for Tat, you can build a very simple but power faith in each other.

For society, there's a different lesson, however, since after all, you can't exchange quid pro quo with everyone that you meet. The woman in a call center in India? The waitress that served you in another country? There's no way to engage in direct exchange. Instead, then, we need to go back to David Brooks, and as a nation, we need to do more to create that feeling, that sense of connectedness that ultimately coats our sense of faith in others. Because it's that feeling, that emotion, that makes people give a quid back for your quo.


Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons

Educational Equity and Effectiveness

Ulrich Boser 0

School finance reformers have long been divided into two camps. On one side, there are the advocates who argue for increased fiscal equity. They believe the primary issue concerning school finance is funding fairness and point to an abundance of evidence that shows high-poverty districts with needier students receive far less money than their wealthier counterparts.


On the other side of the debate are those who argue for increased fiscal efficiency. These advocates believe that school districts do not do nearly enough with the dollars they have. Stanford University’s Eric A. Hanushek—seen as the intellectual grandfather of this camp—put it succinctly, saying, “The real issue is how to organize the [nation’s school] system so that you get the most you can out of the resources you put in.”


Yet there’s a problem inherent to both points of view. Fiscal equity and fiscal effectiveness are not mutually exclusive, and this nation needs to do more to improve both the fairness and the productivity of public school dollars. In other words, we need to make sure that schools and districts not only get enough money to serve their student populations but also that they then spend those dollars wisely.


For educators, this is not some sort of Ivory Tower point. Given uncertain revenues, schools have to show that they are using public dollars in ways that clearly raise student achievement. As noted in my 2011 report “Return on Educational Investment,” fiscal accountability promotes fiscal trust. Indeed, without some push for greater productivity, taxpayers will eventually lose their faith in public schools and thus be far less inclined to fund them.


At the same time, our nation cannot ensure that all students have a fair shot at a good education without greater fiscal equity. In too many parts of the country, students living in high-poverty communities simply do not receive their fair share of education dollars. In fact, in some areas, states systemically give less money to low-income districts. Consider Chicago: As school finance expert Bruce Baker suggests, because of a financial funding formula that is far too dependent on local property taxes, the wealthy suburbs around Chicago receive much more public money than needier schools in inner-city Chicago.


In the end, equity and effectiveness must be considered the same side of the fiscal coin. They support each other and depend on each other. To help improve both equity and the effectiveness of school funding, CAP is releasing three new reports today that address these issues. One of them is my paper, which you can find at the Center and includes the productivity evaluations of 7,000 school districts. Also be sure to look at Bruce Baker's excellent report.


This blog item is an abridged version of a column that first appeared on the Center's website.

Why Trust Matters: The Moral of the “Eye-Poking” Capuchin Monkey

Ulrich Boser 3

When political scientists talk about the importance of trust, they often reach for the literary stars. They pull out the big metaphors. They add some purple to their prose. Researcher Eric Uslaner once called social trust the "chicken soup" of social life. Sociologist Pamela Paxton has argued that trust is "the magic ingredient that makes social life possible." One German academic was Teutonically blunt, declaring that "a complete absence of trust would prevent [one] even getting up in the morning."

Despite the florid writing---and the extensive research behind the basic idea---we continue to undervalue the importance of trust. We don't do enough to support our faith in others. I have a book coming out on social trust in September titled The Leap: The Science of Trust and Why It Matters, and for me, one of the best ways to think about the importance of trust is to consider capuchin monkeys. The small primates live in Central America, and they often work together. When the capuchins chase squirrels, for instance, the monkeys will often go after the babies, with one capuchin distracting the mother while its partner reaches into the nest to swipe one of the children. After netting their prey, the monkeys will eat the squirrel together, making sure to share their haul with each other.

So how do the animals create a sense of trust? How do they know if another monkey is trustworthy? In his wonderful book The Age of Empathy, primatologist Frans de Waal discusses recent research on the monkeys by University of California, Los Angeles's Susan Perry, and it turns out that one capuchin monkey will sometimes stick his finger inside the eyelid of another capuchin and then hold his finger there for a while. I called Susan Perry to find out more, and for the monkeys, the experience seems just as odd as it sounds. One monkey will slide his finger into another monkey's eye socket, and then the pair of animals will sit there with a "zen-like look," Perry told me.

In his book The Age of Empathyde Waal argues that researchers don't know why the animals engage in "eyeball poking," but he suggests that it might all about building trust, that the monkeys use the behavior as a way to create faith in each other. Or think of it this way: If one capuchin knows that another capuchin won't rip out his eye out during a session of "eye poking," then that capuchin is a monkey to work with in the future.

In other words, "eye poking" seems like a capuchin version of the so-called "trust fall," as de Waal points out. "Perhaps capuchin monkeys," de Waal writes, "are trying to find out how much they really like each other, which may then help them decide who can be trusted to support them during confrontations within the group."

What's striking, as de Waal suggests, is that the monkeys are willing to risk so much to find out who is trustworthy. Would you want a dirty finger in your eye socket? Would you be willing to risk your eyesight to figure out if you could work with someone or not?

In the end, my point is that if you ever find yourself wondering just how much trust matters, don't go looking for the answer in purplish prose. Instead, hit play on this video from Susan Perry's capuchin research and watch just how much a monkey is willing to gamble in order to gain some sense of trust.

Photo credit: Geoff Gallice via Flickr

Take The Bite Out Of Crime: Why Our Nation’s Needs To Get Smart About Criminal Justice

Ulrich Boser 0

Quick question: Does the nation have a crime problem? If you think the answer is yes, you would be in some very good—and very fearful—company. According to one recent poll, 74 percent of Americans believed that crime has gotten worse over the past year.

But that perception is not vaguely accurate. In fact, the exact opposite is true. Violent crime has been steadily declining for years, and the murder rate in the United States is about the same as it was in the 1960s. In fact, according to the FBI, some crimes like car theft have dropped over 18 percent over the past year.

What’s to explain this maddening gap? In many ways, the problem is a simple one: Our nation has painfully simplistic perceptions of crime and criminal justice. We watch far too much Breaking Bad; we spend way too much time gawking at reruns of America’s Most Wanted. And without a firm grip on what’s happening within our nation’s courthouses and prisons, we will not solve the pressing problems that do actually threaten our future.

And what’s become clear is that our nation’s biggest criminal justice challenge isn’t a surging wave of crime, as I've written about before. But a deeply dysfunctional justice system that is not effective, moral, or even sustainable. Our nation imprisons 1 out of every 100 adults, more than any other country in the world. One in nine young African-American males are behind bars, with more young black men going to prison each year than join the military or graduate from college. In a country that hails itself as the land of the free, we send a greater proportion of our population to jail than either Russia or China.

At same time, many of those in prison would be far better served elsewhere. Some are drug offenders who need treatment rather than jail. Others are simply mentally ill. And as our country struggles out of the greatest economic downturn in decades, we simply can not afford a penal system that eats up $70 billion a year, that forces some states to spend more on jails than higher education.

There is reason for hope; some reformers have begun to tackle this issue. But for the nation’s broken prison system—and the safety and freedom of American citizens—we must do more. Because for our country’s future, we don’t need to get tough on crime, we need to get smart.


Photo Source:  Henry Hagnäs via Flickr.

This post first appeared on AOL Politics. I've updated and reposted here.