Americans far less trusting than per capita wealth would predict

Catherine Rampell has a couple of interesting charts describing the relationship of trust, income and equality (among countries).

The US is 10th most trusting of the 30 countries examined (with 48.7% saying that others can generally be trusted).  Norway and Denmark are the most trying with almost 90% saying that others can be trusted; Turkey and Mexico are the least trusting with only 20-25% of residents saying that others can be trusted.

Since wealthy countries generally are more trusting, it’s surprising that America is only ranked 10th.


The U.S. is the country in the top center of the graph, way above the black regression line with median equivalized income of $27,000 per person (y-axis) but trust just below 50% (x-axis).  If one moved the US over to the right until it hit the regression line it would have social trust levels of 90%, like Norway.  [better picture here.]

The reason for America’s low level of trust can be seen by looking at the levels of inequality in the US.  More equal countries tend to have higher levels of trust, and viewed through this lens, Americans are just as trusting as one would expect, down around the levels of trust and inequality of a Portugal or a Poland, which while far poorer than the US has similar levels of equality to the US.

The implicit conclusion seems to be that income equality trumps wealth when it comes to trust, which makes some sense as it may engender a “we’re-all-in-this-together” esprit de corps.  But the regression line, if anything, seems to better fit countries for the graph of trust against income per person than the level of trust maps onto levels of equality.  And notably, Denmark and Norway, have higher levels of trust than one would expect from their level of equality.

Food for thought…

See NY Times Economix, “Trust Me, We’re Rich” (Catherine Rampell, 4/18/11)

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2 responses to “Americans far less trusting than per capita wealth would predict

  1. Having trust is a foundational or fundamental quality that we should analyze at an individual level and more closely. Why is it that we trust? One can come up with several reasons and perspectives (with statistics, science, epistemology, etc). Often though, we seem to forget that trust is deeply and seriously codependent with our worldview or view of reality.

    If I believe that my reality is part of a selfish society, where everyone has to look out for oneself (equally or not), then I cannot trust anything outside of what I can control. I will keep others at a distance. I would be apprehensive of any group, organization, or establishment because I would feel threatened. Furthermore, those groups, organizations, establishments, etc. would also be less effective because the individuals in the group would feel anxious that another, just like himself, is looking for his/her best interest.

    If my perspective of the world constantly separates, differentiates, distinguishes, and encourages such distances and prejudices, I am placed in a position of having to choose a side of the divide: “Because there is a Westside and Eastside, I must belong, support, and take pride in anything that represents the Westside;” “Because there are ethnic differences, I must belong to one and I must support and protect the parameters of such a distinction;” “Because I belong to certain religious sect, I cannot trust the other side.” All the forms of differentiation and distinction causes conflict and distrust.

    On the other hand, if I believe that society is interdependent and I am an important factor in the workings of society, I have no choice but to trust another—I have a societal responsibility to trust another. I trust that the judicial system is working without corruption because I am part of it. I trust on our civic leaders because citizens feel deeply connected and concerned about civic matters. I trust my atmosphere and environment because I play an integral part in it. If I believe that the world is codependent, then the trust I have in myself, is the same trust of others. If my worldview is that of in interdependent world, then I trust that my actions are influential and I trust that others act in a responsible way because they understand that their actions are influential.

    As an aside, most scientific findings (and perhaps this posts’ statistics) also have this interdependence. The majority of scientific projects involve a group of specialists that deal with particular aspects of the projects. Ultimately, each individual in a group depends and trusts that the work being done—that the observations are accurate, that the controls are prepared adequately, that the data is interpreted and recorded specifically, that all others in the project have the capacity to interpret and understand the same data the same way, etc.—are accomplished adequately. If such collective trust was nonexistent, then science as we know it would dissipate.

    Trust is codependent with our view of world. What is our worldview? How do we see the other? How do we see our neighbors? What role do we play in society? How much influence does one believe one has in the world?

    There are many cases in our society where our worldview is presented as deeply individualistic, independent, and self-controlling. The media, national policy, and idealisms promote a self driven worldview. Our sense of a collective mind (see my post: E Pluribus Unum) has been altered to a sense of an independent mind.

    In such a worldview where one cares more about the welfare of oneself than the welfare of the collective world, it is understandable why one would not trust in anything outside of one’s control. Furthermore, if our society, culture, and idealism necessitate the incessant act to differentiate and distinguish, one can envision why it is that there is such distrust in other factions. Although wealth may play a role in trust, I encourage those with more facilities than myself to explore deeper causes for our lack of trust. Perhaps those countries that show more trust than the US practice more collective thinking—they perceive their world as codependent or interconnected? What is their perceived worldview? What do they trust—trust in what? These and many more questions should be raised.

  2. All discussions I have seen appear to me to be incomplete. For example, politicians have a habit of pitting one social group against another, for their perceived political gain. This may involve promising one group economic benefits that may be detrimental to an economy as a whole. Also, the perceived favoring of one group over another is bound to foster some distrust and resentment in other groups. In more ethnically homogeneous societies, Norway, i.g., the social trust is higher. You take politics out of the question with the risk of having an incomplete understanding a nation’s prosperity, real or perceived.

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