Category Archives: World Values Survey

Social trust important to social and political stability

Flickr photo by sp8254-catchingup

A new paper by Ken Newton and Sonja Zmerli called “Three forms of trust and their association” finds, counter to the assertions of Eric Uslaner or others, that social trust is important to modern democracies and is positively associated with other types of particular trust.

From seven questions relating to trust, factor analysis revealed two dimensions, one largely related to generalized social trust (the canonical, “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people,” and three other trust questions: trust in 0people one meets for the first time, trust in people of other religions and trust in people of other nationalities.  The second dimension that emerged related to particularized trust, covering questions like trust in family and people whom one knows personally.  Some variables like trust in neighbors loaded positively but less strongly on both the “generalized” and “particularized” factors.

The measure of political trust employed an index composed of 6 measures of confidence in political organizations like parliament, government, political parties, justice system, civil service, and police).

The paper uses World Values Survey (WVS) data from 2005-2007, choosing the 22 countries with the highest democratic scores on the Polity IV variable (New Zealand, Australia, India, US, Sweden, Finland, Great Britain, The Netherlands, France, Spain, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Cyprus, South Africa, Mexico, Peru, Chile).

High political trust is positively related to high generalized trust and political trust even exceeds levels of generalized trust in half of the WVS countries examined: South Africa, Switzerland, Spain, Finland, Slovenia, Italy, Cyprus, Germany, Chile, Mexico and India.

Their results best fit the “conditional” model of trust, namely that there is no incompatibility of generalized social trust and particular trust, but instead that particular social trust tends to form a conducive environment in which both general social trust and political trust can develop.

Newton and Zmerli’s analysis also contravenes a notion that people either trust or don’t based on their personalities; they find instead that individuals “choose whom and what to trust and combine varying degrees of trust or distrust in different objects.”

Finally, their results support what social capital would expect about the importance of generalized social trust on political well-workings and find something of a positive tipping phenomenon — what they call a “rainmaker” effect — that high aggregate levels of trust in society help influence individual trust levels.  [This “rainmaker” effect is less persuasive for me, since unless I’m misreading something, this is not panel data.]

See: “Three Forms of Trust and Their Association” (European Political Science Review 2011)