Individual theories

According to a well-developed social-psychological school of thought in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s, social trust is a core personality trait of individuals.1 It is learned in early childhood, and tends to persist in later life, changing only slowly as a result of experience thereafter. Trust may fall quickly as a result of a traumatic experience, but is more likely to rise slowly as favourable circumstances accumulate. According to the social psychologists, social trust is part of a broader syndrome of personality characteristics that include optimism, a belief in co-operation, and confidence that individuals can resolve their differences and live a satisfactory social life together. Trust and optimism are part and parcel of the same general disposition towards the world. Conversely, distrusters are misanthropic personalities who are also pessimistic and cynical about the possibilities for social and political co-operation.

A slightly different, but still individual, approach towards trust puts less emphasis on early childhood socialisation than on later experience of life. It argues that it is the winners in society who are trusting - those who are wealthier and better educated, with high social and economic status. Trust involves a degree of risk (placing one's interests and well-being in the hands of others), and the better off can afford to take risks more than the poor. The better off are also treated with more respect, which may encourage their sense of trust, and their success in life may give them a more optimistic, trusting, and sunny disposition than the poor, who may be more cynical, distrusting, and suspicious of others.

This approach is supported to some degree by survey data provided by the World Values studies and the American General Social Survey which suggest that social trust tends to be expressed by the "winners" in society, as measured in terms of money, status, and high levels of job and life satisfaction, and subjective happiness.2. "In virtually all societies", writes Putnam, "'have-nots' are less trusting than 'haves', probably because haves are treated by others with more honesty and respect."3 In contrast, distrust is more common among the losers - those with a poor education, low income, and low status, and who express dissatisfaction with their life. Distrust also tends to be expressed by victims of crime and violence, as well as divorcees. According to this view, social trust is the product of adult life experiences; those who have been treated kindly and generously by life are more likely to trust than those who suffer from poverty, unemployment, discrimination, exploitation, and social exclusion.4

We will call this approach the "social success and well-being theory", which emphasises the importance of adult life experiences. Analysis of the relationship between social trust and a set of individual variables including income, social status, education, satisfaction with life, job satisfaction, happiness, and anxiety may test this theory.

Go to next page >>

Footnotes