Do people have a problem placing trust in one another? At least in an abstract, globalized sense, the answer is yes, according to a study published earlier this year.
More than half the citizens living in 68 countries didn’t trust one another, researchers reported in the Journal of Public Affairs. In the paper, Swedish political scientists Sören Holmberg and Bo Rothstein evaluated data from 77 countries from the World Values Survey.
Less trust usually has two direct effects on people’s livelihoods, said Holmberg, who is based at the University of Gothenburg. “If you tend not to trust your fellow man, it’s not good for your health,” he told Undark. It also makes everyday processes less efficient and more time-consuming.
The paper identified nine nations where most people (above 50 percent of the population) are trustful of others. Those counties are the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Finland, New Zealand, Australia, Switzerland, China, and Vietnam. But other countries — including several established democracies — did poorly on measures of trust. Only 38 percent of citizens in the United States trusted others, for example. The numbers for the United Kingdom, Spain, and France were even worse: 30 percent, 20 percent, and 19 percent, respectively.
Less privileged and less educated people tended to have lower levels of interpersonal trust than people with university degrees, those who are in good health, and people who are gainfully employed, the study suggested. And the authors also looked at how social trust levels are changing over time in four countries. They found that the United States, South Africa, and Spain are seeing a slow but steady erosion in levels of trust, while Sweden is undergoing a gradual rise.
Not everyone agrees that the findings are meaningful.
Stephen Marsh, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Trust Management based at the University of Ontario’s Institute of Technology, argued that “general trust isn’t something that really makes much sense” as a concept. Marsh called trust a “societal glue,” but said that it’s a multifaceted and contextual phenomenon that means different things to different people at different times and in different situations. A person might trust a friend to hold their bag, for example, but not with a secret.
The study is about people’s general propensity to trust others — a somewhat amorphous idea, noted Rosalind Searle, a professor of organizational behavior and psychology at Coventry University in the UK, but “not about trusting specific others in specific contexts or with specific tasks” — a much more telling metric.
Searle also suggested that the findings, such that they were, highlighted some obvious ideas, including the disparity in trust between economic and educational levels. “It is hardly surprising that those in society who feel the least confident and the most vulnerable are the most cautious and the least trusting,” she said.
Still, Guido Möllering, professor of Management at Witten/Herdecke University in Germany who edits the Journal of Trust Research, said the study does raise some important questions. Möllering thinks that a generally trusting disposition is healthy for a society — at least up to the point where a “surfeit of trust” becomes harmful again.
He added, however, that demarcating that point is difficult.