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Chapter 1: Social trust and its origin

"Trust is one of the most important synthetic forces within society."1

There is a general consensus among contemporary social scientists that social trust is important, for both social and political reasons. Unusually in the increasingly fragmented and specialised academic world, the interest in trust extends across many different disciplines, including sociology, political science, economics, psychology, history, political theory and philosophy, management and organisation studies, and anthropology. Social trust between citizens, it is said, contributes to a very wide range of phenomena, including economic growth and efficiency in market economics, stable and efficient democratic government, the equitable provision of public goods, social integration, co-operation and harmony. Trust is also said to be at the centre of a cluster of other concepts that are as important in social science theory as in practical daily life, including life satisfaction and happiness, optimism, well-being, health, economic prosperity, educational attainment, welfare, participation, community, civil society, and democracy. For example, there is evidence that trusting people are healthier and happier and live longer than distrusting people do. And, of course, social trust is a core component of social capital, and is normally used as a key indicator of it, sometimes as the best or only single indicator. If trust is indeed as important as this, then it should be extremely interesting to know more about the origins of social trust.

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Definition and operationalisation

Trust is a tricky concept, but we do not need to go into detail about its subtleties and complications here. It is sufficient to offer a working definition of trust as the belief that others will not, at worst, knowingly or willingly do you harm, and will, at best, act in your interests.1 It is, however, important to emphasise that we are concerned with social trust - that is interpersonal or horizontal trust between citizens, rather than vertical or political trust between citizens and political elites, or citizen confidence in political institutions.

In the ESS survey, the concept of social trust is measured on an eleven-point rating scale with the standard survey question: "Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted, or that you can't be too careful in dealing with people?" Those who say that most people can be trusted are given a score of 10, and those who say you can't be too careful are scored 0.

Figure 1.1. Frequency table: "Most people can be trusted or you can't be too careful2

There are two broad schools of thought about trust. The first takes the view that trust is an individual property and that it is associated with individual characteristics, either core personality traits, or individual social and demographic features such as class, education, income, age, and gender. The second argues that social trust is a property not of individuals but of social systems. According to this view the study of trust requires a top-down approach that focuses on the systemic or emergent properties of societies and their central institutions.

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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.

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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.

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The individual-oriented theory we have chosen to examine is termed the "Success and well-being" theory. This theory argues that it is the winners in society, or those who have experienced success in adult life, who are trusting.

Our societal theory is termed "Voluntary Organisation" theory. In this school, 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 trust.

When one is planning to test theories by using survey data, it is necessary to find variables which might shed light on the theory. This is both an empirical and a theoretical exercise. The first step is to use theory and logic to identify the relevant variables, and the second step is to actually test the connection using real world data. The two theories of concern to us have already been operationalised in previous research, and for the sake of simplicity we will use these variables. Table 1.1 lists the two theoretical approaches, and the variables that may be used as measures:

Table 1.1. Two theories of social trust and related variables
Individual Success and well-being theory
  • Life satisfaction
  • Happiness
  • Household income
  • Satisfaction with household income
  • Unemployment
Social Voluntary organisation theory Membership of organisations

Follow the link to the dataset Trust and solve the exercises:

  1. Investigate the frequencies on the variable "Most people can be trusted or you can't be too careful". Subset the data to one or a combination of countries. If you only choose one country, you should use the design weight. If you select several countries, you should also use the population size weight.

    Read more about the use of weights in the 'User guide'


    Subset: Click the icon "Subset". Click the variable "Country" in the left margin and select "Add to subset". Pick your countries. (Press the Ctrl key when you use the mouse to select the countries; then you can select several at a time.) Press "OK" when you are finished.

    Weight: Click the icon "Weight". Select the variable "Design weight". (If you have included more than one country, you should also use "Population size weight".) Press "Ok" when you are done.

    Frequency: Click "Table", click the variable "Most people can be trusted or you can't be too careful" and select "Add to row".

  2. Is it possible to identify "low trust" and "high trust" countries? Solution

    To answer this question, you could run a cross tabulation between "Most people can be trusted or you can't be too careful" (Add to row) and "Country" (Add to column).

    It is sufficient to use the design weight when you compare countries this way (without reference to the average of those countries).

  3. Experiment with different graphical presentations of the result – tables of percentages, bar charts, and pie charts. Finally, you could create a table with descriptive statistics. Add "country" to row and set the "trust" variable as measure.
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