Societal theories

The second major approach towards trust is to see it as a property of society rather than of individuals. Trust is not so much a core personality trait of individuals, but individuals participate in, contribute to, or benefit from a trusting culture, or from social and political institutions that encourage the development of trusting attitudes and behaviour.

According to this approach, responses to the standard question on trust ("Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can't be too careful in dealing with people?") tell us less about the personality of individuals or their individual inclinations than about how they estimate the trustworthiness of the society around them.1 Trust, the theory goes, is the product of experience [Har93], and we constantly modify and update our trustful and distrustful feelings in response to changing circumstances. As a result, levels of trust reported in social surveys are a good indicator of the trustworthiness of the societies in which respondents live; the trust scores tell us more about societies and social systems than about the personality and social types living in them.2

This sort of interpretation of trust gains a degree of prima-facie plausibility when we see that countries like Brazil, Peru, the Philippines, Turkey, and Venezuela are at the lowest end of the international trust scale, while Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, Canada, Finland, Ireland, and Iceland are at the higher end.3 Whatever the distribution of trust scores of individuals within societies, richer and/or more democratic nations are more trusting than poorer and less democratic ones. As a result, poor people in rich countries may be more trusting than people with similar incomes in poor countries. The social and collective nature of social trust is reinforced by the fact that levels of social trust in West Germany rose steadily from 9 % in 1948 to 45 % in 1993 [Cus97]. This was faster than German society replaced the older, distrusting, generations with new, trusting ones; and the upward slope of social trust in the post-war period followed the country's post-war history of economic success and the return to normal life after war and totalitarian government.

If social trust is based upon the social circumstances in which people find themselves, it should be statistically associated with societal variables. However, there is little agreement about which variables are important. The classic view is that a society that is well founded upon a large and varied range of voluntary associations and organisations is likely to generate high levels of social trust. The theory, dating back to de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill, is central to most recent discussion of social capital [Put00]. We learn to participate by participating, and by participating in regular and close contact with others on a voluntary basis we learn "the habits of the heart [Bel85] of trust, reciprocity, co-operation, empathy for others, and an understanding of the common interest and common good. The most important form of participation, from this point of view, is direct, face-to-face, and sustained involvement in voluntary organisations in the local community. This theory is referred to as the voluntary organisations theory. It can be tested by using survey data to analyse the statistical association between levels of social trust, on the one hand, and membership of and activity in voluntary associations, on the other.