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Trust Others? Yah, You Betcha!

- December 31, 2008

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Why do people trust or distrust others? In “Where You Stand Depends Upon Where Your Grandparents Sat,” Eric Uslaner argues that generalized trust in other people is, to a degree, inherited. Americans whose ancestors come from countries characterized by high levels of trust — such as the Nordic countries — are themselves more trusting. Moreover, trust is even higher among Americans from these countries who live among others with the same ancestry.

I’ve summarized his findings above with a graph, using the same data but presenting only simple descriptive statistics. This is my graph, not his, so do not consider it an exact replication. But it captures the flavor of his analysis, which controls for a variety of other factors besides ancestry. In a more elaborate model, those of Nordic, British and German ancestry are more trusting. The effect of Nordic ancestry is about twice as large as that of British ancestry, and about 5 times as large as that of German ancestry. Those of African and Spanish/Latino ancestry are less trusting, controlling for other factors.

The apparent “inheritability” of trust leads to some interesting implications:

bq. If trust is culturally transmitted, then suggestions that we can boost it by joining more clubs or watching less television (Putnam 2000) may be, in Samuel Johnson’s characterization of second marriages, “the triumph of hope over experience.” Generalized trust is rather stable over time because it has deep social roots and does not shift with each new experience…Building trust is not so easy, especially if it follows people from their family’s “old country.”

The article is here (gated) or here (ungated).