Mark Dolliver’s Takes: Social Trust

Don’t feel badly the next time you see a report that says people distrust advertising. It turns out that lots of them distrust each other, too—though perhaps not as many as you’d guess. A survey by the Pew Research Center documents the degree to which Americans (and specific segments of the population) have or lack “social trust.”

One of the poll’s questions asked, “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people?” While 45 percent said most people are trustworthy, 50 percent said you can’t be too careful. (The rest volunteered some other answer or declined to respond.) Another question: “Do you think most people would try to take advantage of you if they got the chance, or would they try to be fair?” Perhaps because it was stated so starkly, the negative case had fewer takers here, with 31 percent saying most would take advantage and 59 percent saying most would be fair. Likewise, a third question found 57 percent of respondents saying “most of the time people try to be helpful,” while 35 percent said instead that people “are mostly just looking out for themselves.”

Pew put the data together to yield an “index of social trust,” ranging from “high” to “mid” to “low.” Overall, 35 percent of adults exhibited a “high” level of trust, 22 percent a “mid” level and 38 percent a “low” level. (The rest fell into the “don’t know” class.) Men were more likely than women to rate as highly trusting (38 percent vs. 32 percent), but the gender gap was small compared to the ethnicity gap: 41 percent of whites were on the high-trust end of the spectrum, as were 20 percent of blacks and 12 percent of Hispanics. Marital status was also a salient factor: Married people were much more likely than singles to be in the high-trust ranks (40 percent vs. 29 percent). If you think naive-and-trusting youth gives way to cynical old age, guess again: 23 percent of 18-29-year-olds had high social-trust scores, vs. 34 percent of 30-49s, 42 percent of 50-64s and 41 percent of those 65-plus. Playing true to stereotype, people in big cities were less likely than those in rural areas to display high levels of trust (23 percent vs. 43 percent).

Pew also pointed to cohorts among whom the gaps were minor. For instance, there was little difference in the number of conservatives with a high social-trust score (38 percent) and the number of moderates and liberals with one (each 35 percent). Secular respondents differed only a bit from Protestants and Catholics in this respect (38 percent vs. 34 percent vs. 34 percent). Of course, this doesn’t tell us whether the God-fearing trust the God-denying, or vice versa.