Trust

Lane Kenworthy, The Good Society
September 2017

Public opinion surveys often ask respondents whether “most people can be trusted” or “you can’t be too careful in life.” The share who choose the first option is treated by social scientists as an indicator of the degree of generalized interpersonal trust in the society. Research has linked trust with economic growth, healthy democracy, tolerance, charity, community, and happiness.1

How trusting are Americans? Why has our trust of other people declined? Do we need more trust?

HOW TRUSTING ARE WE?

Only a third of Americans believe most people can be trusted, as figure 1 shows. This share has decreased at least since the early 1970s, and very likely since the mid-1960s.

Figure 1. Most people can be trusted
Share of adults. GSS question: “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in life?” Response options: can trust, cannot trust, depends. The line shows the share responding can trust, with depends responses omitted. Data source: General Social Survey, sda.berkeley.edu, series trust. WVS question: “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you need to be very careful in dealing with people?” Response options: can trust, cannot trust. Data source: World Values Survey. NORC question: “Do you think most people can be trusted? Yes or no.” Data source: National Opinion Research Corp, cited in Robert E. Lane, “The Politics of Consensus in an Age of Affluence,” American Political Science Review, 1965, p. 879.

Figure 2 shows the trend for interpersonal trust along with responses to a similar question that asks “Do you think most people would try to take advantage of you if they got a chance, or would they try to be fair?” The share of American adults who are trusting according to this measure is higher. And while here too we see a downward trend over time, the magnitude of the decline is smaller — six percentage points for the “fair” question versus 15 for the “trust” question. Also, the decline in perceptions of fairness stopped around 2000. This suggests some grounds for caution in our interpretation of how trusting Americans are and how much their trustingness has decreased over time.

Figure 2. Two measures of trust
Share of adults. Fair question: “Do you think most people would try to take advantage of you if they got a chance, or would they try to be fair?” Response options: take advantage, fair, depends. The line shows the share responding fair, with depends responses omitted. Data source: General Social Survey, sda.berkeley.edu, series fair. Trust question: “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in life?” Response options: can trust, cannot trust, depends. The lines show the share responding can trust, with depends responses omitted. Data sources: General Social Survey, sda.berkeley.edu, series trust.

Figure 3 shows that trust is lower in the US than in many, though not all, other rich democratic nations.

Figure 3. Most people can be trusted
Share of adults. Question: “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you need to be very careful in dealing with people?” Data source: World Values Survey. “Asl” is Australia.

WHY AREN’T WE MORE TRUSTING?

Americans are less trusting than their counterparts in many other rich nations, and we’ve become less trusting over the past half century. Why is that? Leading suspects include education, safety, ethnic diversity, income inequality, culture, civic engagement, and confidence in government. Let’s consider these one by one.

Education. Education is one of the best predictors of differences in trust among individuals: people with more schooling tend to be more trusting. We can see this if we look across individuals within the US, as figure 4 shows. And we can see it if we look across the world’s rich democratic nations, as figure 5 reveals.

Figure 4. Education and trust across individuals in the US
Share of the adult population who feel “most people can be trusted,” 2014. Question: “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in life?” Other response options: you can’t be too careful; depends. Data source: General Social Survey, series trust.

Figure 5. Education and trust across countries
Trust: Share of adults saying “most people can be trusted.” The other response option is “You can never be too careful when dealing with others.” Data source: World Values Survey. Education: Average literacy and numeracy score on the OECD’s Survey of Adult Skills, 2013. Data source: OECD, Skills Outlook, 2013, tables A2.2a and A2.6a. The correlation is +.66. “Asl” is Australia.

Yet it’s unlikely that education has been a key contributor to the decline in trust in the United States. For one thing, the over-time correlation isn’t supportive. Educational attainment has been rising steadily over the past half century while trust has been falling, as figure 6 shows. In addition, as figure 7 shows, trust has been decreasing at roughly the same pace among Americans with varying levels of education. That isn’t what we would expect to see if education were driving the reduction in trust.

Figure 6. Education and trust
Education: Completed 4 or more years of college. Ages 25-34. Data source: Census Bureau, “Years of School Completed by People 25 Years and Over, by Age and Sex,” using Current Population Survey (CPS) data. Trust: Share of adults. Question: “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in life?” Response options: can trust, cannot trust, depends. The lines show the share responding can trust, with depends responses omitted. Data sources: General Social Survey, sda.berkeley.edu, series trust. National Opinion Research Corp, cited in Robert E. Lane, “The Politics of Consensus in an Age of Affluence,” American Political Science Review, 1965, p. 879.

Figure 7. Trust by education
Share of adults. Education numbers refer to years of schooling completed. Data source: General Social Survey, sda.berkeley.edu, series trust, educ.

Safety. Where there is more crime, especially violent crime, trust is likely to be diminished.2 One commentator puts it as follows: “If in recent decades you lived in a neighborhood that has become much more densely populated with people who will cheat, rob, assault, and perhaps even murder you, you would be a fool not to have become more untrusting and less likely to assume that other people will treat you fairly.”3

Yet this too is unlikely to have been a key contributor to the decrease in trust. As figure 8 shows, violent crime in the United States has dropped sharply since the early 1990s, but trust has fallen during this period. The cross-country pattern, shown in figure 9, also isn’t supportive of a causal link. The US has by far the highest murder rate, yet we’re not nearly the lowest on trust.4

Figure 8. Violent crime and trust
Violent crime: homicide, rape, aggravated assault, and robbery. Per 100,000 population. Data source: Bureau of Justice Statistics, using FBI Uniform Crime Reports data. Trust: Share of adults. Question: “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in life?” Response options: can trust, cannot trust, depends. The lines show the share responding can trust, with depends responses omitted. Data sources: General Social Survey, sda.berkeley.edu, series trust. National Opinion Research Corp, cited in Robert E. Lane, “The Politics of Consensus in an Age of Affluence,” American Political Science Review, 1965, p. 879.

Figure 9. Violent crime and trust
Trust: Share of adults saying “most people can be trusted.” The other response option is “You can never be too careful when dealing with others.” Data source: World Values Survey. Violent crime: Homicides per 100,000 population. Data source: OECD. “Asl” is Australia; “Aus” is Austria.

Ethnic diversity. A number of studies have found that societies with more ethnic diversity tend to have lower interpersonal trust.5 However, other studies find no such link.6 Figure 10 suggests the correlation across the rich nations is quite weak.

Figure 10. Ethnic fractionalization and trust
Trust: Share of adults saying “most people can be trusted.” The other response option is “You can never be too careful when dealing with others.” Data source: World Values Survey. Ethnic fractionalization: Probability that two randomly drawn individuals of a country belong to two different ethnic groups. Data source: Alberto Alesina et al, “Fractionalization,” Journal of Economic Growth, 2003. The correlation is -.10. “Asl” is Australia; “Aus” is Austria.

In the United States the over-time trend in ethnic diversity is largely a function of trends in immigration. The foreign-born share of the US population decreased from the 1920s through the 1960s. The 1965 immigration reform reversed the trend, as figure 11 indicates.7 The broad pattern is consistent with the hypothesis of a causal effect: trust has tended to rise when the foreign-born share was decreasing and fallen when the foreign-born share increased. Yet the 1960s are a puzzle: the foreign-born share decreased during that decade, and yet this was when the largest fall in trust occurred.

Figure 11. Immigration and trust
Immigration: foreign-born share of the population. Data source: Census Bureau. Trust: Share of adults. Question: “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in life?” Response options: can trust, cannot trust, depends. The lines show the share responding can trust, with depends responses omitted. Data sources: General Social Survey, sda.berkeley.edu, series trust. National Opinion Research Corp, cited in Robert E. Lane, “The Politics of Consensus in an Age of Affluence,” American Political Science Review, 1965, p. 879.

We don’t have good over-time data on ethnic heterogeneity across countries. However, we know that immigration has increased sharply in some nations and not in others. Sweden with Denmark offer an instructive comparison. The two countries are similar in many ways, and historically both have been ethnically homogenous. In the past two decades, though, Sweden has absorbed a large immigrant inflow while Denmark has had relatively little immigration. Despite this difference, trust has remained at a very high level in both countries during this period (figure 3). Then again, according to the World Values Survey data, trust has increased in Denmark while remaining constant in Sweden.

Income inequality. Higher income inequality may be corrosive of trust. One hypothesis is that visible inequality leads people to think cheating must be rife. “When 1 percent of the population takes home more than 22 percent of the country’s income,” writes Joseph Stiglitz, “reasonable people, even those ignorant of the maze of unfair policies that created this reality, can look at this absurd distribution and be pretty certain that the game is rigged.”8

Another hypothesis suggests that more income inequality yields less personal interaction and therefore less familiarity with people from other income classes. “We tend to choose our friends from among our near equals,” say Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, “and have little to do with those much richer or much poorer. And when we have less to do with other kinds of people, it’s harder for us to trust them. Our position in the social hierarchy affects who we see as part of the in-group and who as out-group — us and them — so affecting our ability to identify with and empathize with other people.”9

A third hypothesis holds that income inequality reduces trust by enhancing a sense that the middle class is modest in size while the poor are numerous and lack incentives to adhere to norms of honesty. “If the bottom groups are poor,” according to Christian Albrekt Larsen, “then it is fair to imagine that they have a lot to gain by cheating…. [Also,] the middle may easily imagine that persons at the bottom do not have much reputation to lose. Along the same line of reasoning it is fairly easy to understand why the middle might perceive imagined fellow citizens belonging to the middle as trustworthy. Persons in the middle of society are fairly well-off and therefore their (perceived) gain from cheating is lower. At the same time the losses connected with being caught cheating seem to be much higher…. But most importantly, persons in ‘the middle’ have much more reputation to lose.”10

Trust is negatively correlated with the level of income inequality across countries, across the American states, and over time for the US as a whole.11 However, trust began decreasing in the United States in the 1960s (or possibly the 1970s), which is prior to the rise in income inequality, and the decline in trust does not seem to have accelerated once inequality began to increase.12 This suggests that, if income inequality and trust are correlated over time, the causal direction may run from trust to inequality rather than the other way around.13

Figure 12 shows change in trust by change in income inequality across countries. The predicted association is negative; countries with larger increases in income inequality should be more likely to have experienced stagnant or falling trust. And that’s indeed what we observe. The association is negative for both measures of income inequality.

Figure 12. Change in trust by change in income inequality
Change is measured over the years 1979 to 2007. The lines are linear regression lines. The solid regression line includes all fifteen countries; the dashed line excludes Denmark and the United Kingdom. Trust: Share of adults saying “most people can be trusted.” The other response option is “You can never be too careful when dealing with others.” Data source: World Values Survey. Bottom 99% Gini: posttransfer-posttax household income. Data source: Standardized World Income Inequality Database. Top 1% share: pretax income excluding capital gains. Data source: World Top Incomes Database.

Yet the correlation is driven by just two countries: Denmark (upper-left corner) and the United Kingdom (lower-right). If we take these two countries out, the negative association goes away entirely (first chart) or largely (second chart), as the dashed lines in the charts indicate. Is it sensible to rest our verdict on these two countries? Do Denmark and the UK illuminate a trust-reducing impact of income inequality?14 I suspect they don’t. In Denmark, trust increased massively according to the World Values Survey data. Income inequality did decrease a little in Denmark — at least when measured as the Gini for the bottom 99% of households — but it seems unlikely that this dramatically increased contact and friendships among people of different incomes, or that it sharply reduced middle-class Danes’ sense of a large underclass who cannot be trusted. And is there good reason to believe the opposite happened in the UK, where income inequality rose and trust decreased? An alternative possibility is that this is measurement error — that for some reason the survey results exaggerate the true amount of increase in trust in Denmark and the true amount of decrease in trust in the UK.15

An analysis of over-time patterns in the US states offers additional grounds for skepticism about the impact of income inequality on trust. Between 1980 and 2000, trust didn’t tend to decrease more in states in which income inequality increased more.16

Culture. Studies comparing across countries or across regions within countries have found lower generalized trust where the culture prioritizes family (southern Italy) or collectivism (Japan, southern United States). Family-centered or collectivist culture is thought to foster strong bonds with insiders but wariness of outsiders.17

Once again, however, the over-time correlation isn’t supportive: family and collectivism have weakened in the US during the past half century, so neither helps to account for the decline in generalized trust.18

Civic engagement. Participation in civic groups and activities fosters social interaction. In so doing it facilitates communication and amplifies information about the trustworthiness of others. For these reasons, it’s reasonable to hypothesize that civic participation heightens interpersonal trust. Drawing on data across regions in Italy, across states in the US, and over time in the US, Robert Putnam concludes that it is the key determinant of trust.19

The over-time correlation is supportive. Civic engagement seems to have peaked around 1965 and then began falling.20 Figure 13 offers one way to see this. It shows the trend in membership in 32 national chapter-based associations that existed throughout much of the twentieth century. Membership rose steadily until the mid-1960s; since then it has decreased steadily. This is the period in which interpersonal trust also has declined.

Figure 13. Civic participation and trust
Civic participation: Membership in 32 national chapter-based organizations
Includes the Parent-Teacher Association (PTA), Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, 4-H, League of Women Voters, Knights of Columbus, Rotary, Elks, Kiwanis, Jaycees, Optimists, American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, the NAACP, B’nai B’rith, Grange, Red Cross, and more. Data source: Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Simon and Schuster, 2000, figure 8. Trust: Share of adults. Question: “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in life?” Response options: can trust, cannot trust, depends. The lines show the share responding can trust, with depends responses omitted. Data sources: General Social Survey, sda.berkeley.edu, series trust. National Opinion Research Corp, cited in Robert E. Lane, “The Politics of Consensus in an Age of Affluence,” American Political Science Review, 1965, p. 879.

Figure 14 shows that civic participation (active group membership) is positively associated with trust across countries, though the correlation isn’t especially strong.

Figure 14. Civic participation and trust
Trust: Share of adults saying “most people can be trusted.” The other response option is “You can never be too careful when dealing with others.” Data source: World Values Survey. Active group membership: share of adults who say they are an active member of a civic group or organization. Average for eight types of organization: religious, sports-recreation, art-music-education, charitable, professional, labor union, environmental, consumer. Question: “Now I am going to read off a list of voluntary organizations. For each organization, could you tell me whether you are an active member, an inactive member, or not a member of that type of organization?” Average over 2005-2014. Data source: World Values Survey, worldvaluessurvey.org. The correlation is +.36. “Asl” is Australia; “Aus” is Austria.

Ideally, we would want to see whether change in civic participation correlates with change in trust across countries, but we lack the needed over-time data on active group membership. One analysis of over-time trends in the US states finds a correlation between changes in civic engagement and changes in interpersonal trust but concludes that trust is more the cause than the effect.21

Trust in government. Government is one of our most important institutions, and over time it has played a growing, and increasingly visible, role in the lives of citizens in affluent democratic nations. The degree to which people have trust or confidence in their government may therefore influence the degree to which they trust other individuals.

Figure 15 shows that Americans’ trust in their government was high through the 1950s. But it dropped sharply due to the Vietnam War (1964-75) and Watergate (1974), and since then it has decreased a bit more. The over-time pattern for generalized interpersonal trust is very similar.

Figure 15. Trust in government and generalized interpersonal trust
Share of adults. Trust in government question: “Do you trust the government in Washington to do what is right always, most of the time, some of the time, or never?” The line shows the share responding always or most of the time. Data source: Pew Research Center, “Public Trust in Government, 1958-2017,” using data from assorted public opinion surveys. Trust question: “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in life?” Response options: can trust, cannot trust, depends. The lines show the share responding can trust, with depends responses omitted. Data sources: General Social Survey, sda.berkeley.edu, series trust. National Opinion Research Corp, cited in Robert E. Lane, “The Politics of Consensus in an Age of Affluence,” American Political Science Review, 1965, p. 879. The correlation is +.85.

The association across countries also is quite strong. As figure 16 reveals, nations where confidence in government is greater tend to have higher levels of generalized interpersonal trust.22

Figure 16. Confidence in government and generalized interpersonal trust
Trust: Share of adults saying “most people can be trusted.” The other response option is “You can never be too careful when dealing with others.” Data source: World Values Survey. Confidence in government question: “Do you have confidence in the national government: yes or no?” Data source: Gallup World Poll, via the OECD. The correlation is +.76. “Asl” is Australia; “Aus” is Austria.

Bo Rothstein has argued that this correlation is causal. In particular, he argues that trust in government is the principal cause of high interpersonal trust in the Nordic countries. Confidence in government is itself, according to Rothstein, a function of the provision of services and benefits that are universal and therefore highly visible to the population.23

DO WE NEED MORE TRUST?

Trust may contribute to a variety of things we want, including a healthy economy, a healthy democracy, greater tolerance, stronger community, and more happiness. Do we need to reverse the decline in trust that has occurred over the past half century?

That probably would be helpful, but I suspect the United States can do quite well going forward even if we don’t manage to increase generalized interpersonal trust. First, on some outcomes, such as economic security and health, we can do better by changing government policies, and doing so doesn’t require more trust.

Second, some countries with lower trust do pretty well. Japan, the United Kingdom, Belgium, France, and several other nations have similar or lower levels of trust than the US (figure 3). These countries are successful in many respects, and superior to the US in some important ones.

Third, while trust has been decreasing over the past half century America and Americans have continued to move forward — not as much as we could and should have, but forward nonetheless. That suggests reason for optimism even if trust remains low or falls further.


  1. Robert D. Putnam, Making Democracy Work, Princeton University Press, 1993; Francis Fukuyama, Trust, Free Press, 1995; Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Simon and Schuster, 2000; Richard Layard, Andrew Clark, and Claudia Senik, “The Causes of Happiness and Misery,” in World Happiness Report, edited by John Helliwell, Richard Layard, and Jeffrey Sachs, Earth Institute, Columbia University, 2012; Yann Algan and Pierre Cahuc, “Trust, Well-Being and Growth: New Evidence and Policy Implications,” in Handbook of Economic Growth, edited by Philippe Aghion and Steven N. Durlauf, Elsevier, 2014. 
  2. Catherine E. Ross, John Mirowsky, and Shana Pribesh, “Disadvantage, Disorder, and Urban Mistrust,” City and Community, 2002; Sandra Susan Smith, Lone Pursuit: Distrust and Defensive Individualism Among the Black Poor, Russell Sage Foundation, 2007; Danielle Raudenbush, “‘I Stay by Myself’: Social Support, Distrust, and Selective Solidarity Among the Urban Poor,” Sociological Forum, 2016. 
  3. Charles Murray, Coming Apart, 2012. 
  4. Lane Kenworthy, “Safety,” The Good Society. 
  5. Alberto Alesina and Eliana La Ferrara, “The Determinants of Trust,” Journal of Public Economics, 2002; Robert D. Putnam, “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century,” Scandinavian Political Studies, 2007; Willie Belton, Yameen Huq, and Ruth Uwaifo Oyelere, “Social Capital in the U.S: A Tale of Conflict, Contact or Total Mistrust?,” Discussion Paper 8384, IZA, 2014; Peter Thisted Dinesen and Kim Mannemar Sonderskov, “Ethnic Diversity and Social Trust: Evidence from the Micro-Context,” American Sociological Review, 2015; James Laurence and Lee Bentley, “Does Ethnic Diversity Have a Negative Effect on Attitudes towards the Community? A Longitudinal Analysis of the Causal Claims within the Ethnic Diversity and Social Cohesion Debate,” European Sociological Review, 2016. There are exceptions, such as Birte Gundelach, “In Diversity We Trust: The Positive Effect of ethnic Diversity on Outgroup Trust,” Political Behavior, 2014. 
  6. Jong-sung You, “Social Trust: Fairness Matters More Than Homogeneity,” Political Psychology, 2012. 
  7. Lane Kenworthy, “Immigration,” The Good Society. 
  8. Joseph E. Stiglitz, “In No One We Trust,” New York Times, December 21, 2013. 
  9. Wilkinson and Pickett, The Spirit Level, p. 51. See also Eric Uslaner, The Moral Foundations of Trust, Cambridge University Press, 2002; Christian Albrekt Larsen, The Rise and Fall of Social Cohesion, Oxford University Press, 2013. 
  10. Larsen, The Rise and Fall of Social Cohesion, p. 88. 
  11. Bo Rothstein and Eric Uslaner, “All for All: Equality, Corruption, and Social Trust,” World Politics, 2005; Andrew Leigh, “Does Equality Lead to Fraternity?,” Economics Letters, 2006; Henrik Jordahl, “Inequality and Trust,” IFN Working Paper 715, Research Institute of Industrial Economics, 2007; Christian Bjørnskov, “Social Trust and Fractionalization: A Possible Reinterpretation,” European Sociological Review, 2008; Wilkinson and Pickett, The Spirit Level, ch. 4; OECD, “Trust,” Society at a Glance, 2011; Sander Steijn and Bram Lancee, “Does Income Inequality Negatively Affect General Trust?,” Discussion Paper 20, GINI Project, 2011; Larsen, The Rise and Fall of Social Cohesion. 
  12. Robert Putnam and Anant Thaker, “Equality and Social Capital: What’s the Connection?,” unpublished, 2010; Kenworthy and Smeeding, “Growing Inequalities and Their Impacts in the United States,” figure 4.3.4. 
  13. Putnam and Thaker, “Equality and Social Capital: What’s the Connection?” 
  14. Christian Albrekt Larsen has looked at the Danish, Swedish, UK, and US cases in detail. He concludes as follows (Larsen, The Rise and Fall of Social Cohesion, p. 181): “Our perceptions of the broader society in which we live are crucial for our assessment of the trustworthiness of others. The ‘social democratic route’ led to less economic inequality and poverty, which for Danes and Swedes encouraged the perception that most citizens belonged to the trustworthy middle classes. The ‘neo-liberal route’ led to more economic inequality and poverty, which gave British and Americans the perception that most citizens belonged to the untrustworthy bottom…. The mass media has contributed to constructing these different perceptions of living in a society with a large and untrustworthy ‘bottom’, or, of living in a society with a large and trustworthy ‘middle’.” 
  15. For more on the Danish case, see Kim Mannemar Sønderskov and Peter Thisted Dinesen, “Danish Exceptionalism: Explaining the Unique Increase in Social Trust Over the Past 30 Years,” European Sociological Review, 2014. 
  16. Malcolm Fairbrother and Isaac W. Martin, “Does Inequality Erode Social trust? Results from Multilevel Models of US States and Counties,” Social Science Research, 2013, using General Social Survey data. 
  17. Fukuyama, Trust; Brent Simpson, “The Poverty of Trust in the Southern United States,” Social Forces, 2006. 
  18. Lane Kenworthy, “Families,” The Good Society.; Ronald Inglehart, Roberto Foa, Christopher Peterson, and Christian Welzel, “Development, Freedom, and Rising Happiness: A Global Perspective,” Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2008. 
  19. Putnam, Making Democracy Work; Putnam, Bowling Alone. 
  20. Lane Kenworthy, “Civic Engagement,” The Good Society. 
  21. Eric M. Uslaner and Mitchell Brown, “Inequality, Trust, and Civic Engagement,” American Politics Research, 2005. 
  22. The International Social Survey Programme (ISSP) has a similar question, which asks “Do you agree or disagree: Most of the time we can trust people in government to do what is right.” The cross-country association with interpersonal trust is similar. 
  23. Bo Rothstein, The Quality of Government, University of Chicago Press, 2011.