I trust we’re all in this together…?

Spot the odd one out.

  1. I trust you.
  2. She’s a trusting soul.
  3. Do you trust him?
  4. Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people?

Of course it’s 4, a survey question designed to get at “generalised” or social trust.  It’s so ubiquitous in social surveys that it’s known by an acronym: GTQ – the Generalised Trust Question.  Generalised trust is the sense we have that the people around us – people we don’t know personally, but who occupy the same public spaces as us – are generally safe to be around.  A generalised truster sees friends he hasn’t met yet; a non-truster sees a paedophile behind every bush and a pickpocket in every crowd.

I’ll be honest and admit that after writing that sentence I checked the correlation between ‘trusting’ and ‘reading the Daily Mail’ using the 2009/10 Citizenship Survey.  I was slightly disappointed to find that there’s no difference between Mail readers and the rest of the population.  Guardian readers, on the other hand, are a trusting lot.  Generalised trust stands at around 40% in the population (and among Mail readers) but 65% for Guardian readers.  It’s a small sample (383 Guardian readers out of a core sample of 9305).  Anyway…

Generalised trust is an odd concept.  Trusters and non-trusters must be moving in different circles, as well as having different habits of mind.  An intelligent truster in a neighbourhood full of cheats, thieves and liars would soon change her attitude.  Patrick Sturgis has an interesting paper on the subject which links trust to intelligence.  His hypothesis runs roughly that bright people (well, children who scored well on intelligence tests) will go on to be more trusting adults (measured by the GTQ) because they make good judgements.  Bright people give their trust to unknown others under circumstances in which that trust is most likely to be rewarded, so they tend to have good experiences, so they continue to be trusting: essentially, they make good judgements.  People who maybe aren’t so bright invest their trust less wisely and so have bad experiences, and end up less trusting.  Of course, as Sturgis points out, intelligence test scores in childhood and generalised trust are both strongly social class-related: rich kids are brighter and rich adults are more trusting.  Using the 2009/10 Citizenship Survey data again, 53% of adults in management are trusting, compared to 32% of those in routine or semi-routine jobs.

Trust is an attitude, linked to personal circumstances but also to personal history and character.  Robert Putnam (he of Bowling Alone, social capital, the evils of TV and the demise of schmoozing) uses it as the key social attitude linking community cohesion and political and civic health.  People who schmooze, who meet with their neighbours for coffee, who volunteer in their communities, are more trusting than loners, he says, and their trust grows as a result of their positive contacts with the people around them.  He also says that trust is good for democracy: trusting people have more reasons to get involved with running their communities, they vote more often, and engage more fully with the democratic process, contacting politicians and local officials more often than non-trusters.

This tangled “bowl of spaghetti” (that’s Putnam again) is pretty much impossible to unpick, but it seems to me, that the fork around which the spaghetti twirls is social class.  That muffled twang, by the way, was the sound of the spaghetti metaphor unravelling.  Social class at birth predicts IQ, trust, future social class (forget about social mobility right now), future salary, civic and political engagement, newspaper-readership, and pretty much anything else you can think of.  Your father’s job title when you are born offers enormous insight into your future civic and political life (and everything else) – or certainly it has done up until now.  I just wish I could see that changing any time soon.

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