Social Trust Is Lower Than You Think

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.

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