The slow decline of trust over time

By Razib Khan | May 7, 2011 10:41 pm

Yesterday I made an admission of my lack of trust after the 2008 financial crisis. I should have been more precise and clarified that my collapse in trust has been particularly aimed at elites and “experts.” In any case, I realized that the General Social Survey has 2010 results available. This means that I could check any changes in public trust and confidence from 2008 to 2010! Below in the set of charts there is one that assesses trust in banks and financial institutions. The direction of change validates my specific implication. But it seems that my intuition was wrong in that American society had slouched toward more general distrust. This makes me less pessimistic about the direction of our culture and the future rationally (I can’t say that my visceral emotional cynicism has been abolished).

As you can see there wasn’t much change between 2008 and 2010. For the broad question of “can you trust people” I also decided to break it down by political ideology, education, and intelligence in two year rages, 1972-1991 and 1992-2010. There are noticeable differences in intelligence and education (less intelligent and less educated people are more distrustful), but not in terms of ideology.

After the bar plots there are another range of line graphs by year showing confidence in a range of institutions (including finance) from 1972 to 2010. It is interesting how much you can see short term volatility due to world events, which quickly recedes back toward the trend line.





CATEGORIZED UNDER: Data Analysis, GSS
  • http://mutecypher.wordpress.com mutecypher

    We’re all Scientists now – in the Feynman sense of “science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.”

  • John Emerson

    I think that the greater mistrustfulness of the less educated comes from two things. One is that just because of their lack of discernment, they attract predators, and because their capacity for critical thinking is poor, they tend to make decisions on personal trust of individuals with a good schmooze (the worst thing they could do). The second is that among the poor, who are usually the less educated, there’s more mutual dependency and need for trust, but also more desperation, need, and motivation for betrayal.

    I’m not a suspicious person at all, but in any kind of substantial business deal I would take the routine businesslike precautions. I’m also not surrounded by hard-up people, and I’m not hard-up myself, so I don’t rely on trust a lot.

    This is is just one part of the story. There are places where everyone is suspicious (smart and dumb, rich and poor) and these are also places where everyone is wily and conniving.

  • AG

    Low trust would lead to more jasmine style revolution or political instability.

  • http://backseatdriving.blogspot.com/ Brian Schmidt

    The less educated have probably had things turn out less well for them in life, so it’s no surprise they’d be less trusting.

    Also a lack of governmental support and family support, and maybe being mistreated in their jobs, all might have prevented them from getting educated, and could also cause a lack of trust.

  • http://ecophysio.fieldofscience.com/ EcoPhysioMichelle

    Wow, look at that confidence in the press graph.

  • Robert

    “This makes me less pessimistic about the direction of our culture and the future rationally”

    Conservatives of all stripes will view the stability of public trust as an unmitigated good thing. Particularly heartening to our 21st century Burnhamesque technocratic elites should be the public’s seemingly implacable (chartwise that is) “Confidence in (the) scientific community.”

  • AG

    High trust depends on high IQ. Lack of ability to tell fraud from truth makes people blindly not trusting any thing. Education is proxy for IQ here. If you are smart, you are able to figure out who you can trust. In the end, you know there are a lot of people you can count on.
    Ability to detect truth/bullshit is the same ability to solve a complicated math problem. Ability to judge a person’s character is the abitliy to connect dots (IQ like test).

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    High trust depends on high IQ. Lack of ability to tell fraud from truth makes people blindly not trusting any thing. Education is proxy for IQ here. If you are smart, you are able to figure out who you can trust. In the end, you know there are a lot of people you can count on.

    just so you know, WORDSUM and DEGREE have about the same effect sizes in logit regression. in other words, there is independent effects of education and IQ (wordsum is a better proxy than education, the correlation is 0.70 with g). i also think focusing on the individual misses the ecological issue: smart people tend to be correlated with environments where high trust can flourish for a variety of reasons.

    Ability to detect truth/bullshit is the same ability to solve a complicated math problem. Ability to judge a person’s character is the abitliy to connect dots (IQ like test).

    i’d like to see some data for this. high IQ people are extremely gullible in my experience, and have to trained to be suspicious. i’m a case in point. i have a high IQ but was voted “most gullible” in my class.

  • Idlewilde

    ”i’d like to see some data for this. high IQ people are extremely gullible in my experience, and have to trained to be suspicious. i’m a case in point. i have a high IQ but was voted “most gullible” in my class.”

    Perhaps this is because a lot of people with access to facilities that will cultivate an exceptional IQ are middle to upper-middle class and don’t have any need to be suspicious or develope street smarts.

  • Åse

    Well, Judith Hall (and co-worker) did a meta-analysis of research on IQ and interpersonal sensitivity, and found an association, and that would in part be the basis for trust. (That is what I immediately thought of, though I had to search for the ref).

    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6W4M-51KH6HH-1&_user=745831&_coverDate=02%2F28%2F2011&_rdoc=1&_fmt=high&_orig=gateway&_origin=gateway&_sort=d&_docanchor=&view=c&_acct=C000041498&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=745831&md5=45b65c5e95efee6fed189cc0ab1641bb&searchtype=a

    Then again, I’m probably one of those high IQ highly gullible persons.

    (Now, let’s see if the link turns into a nice clickable one. I’ve spent too much time on a site that has nice tools for it, so I haven’t bothered memorizing http code).

  • Clark

    That’s fascinating. Especially the political breakout. Conservative had a dip in trust when Iraq went to hell (and presumably the realization that Bush wasn’t being completely forthcoming on the WMD issue). Liberals start to trust significantly once the Obama craze hits.

    The issue of high school vs. college is also really fascinating. I wonder if it’s because of peers. That is people who’ve graduated tend to have a lot of peers also college graduates and there’s less of a chance to meet the unscruptulous. Those without college are probably encountering more people untrustworthy. I bet if you broke it out by income we’d see that as an indicator.

    John Emerson raises a great point too. The uneducated have to work by trust much more than the rest of us. So when something goes wrong with say a doctor they lose trust because that’s all they have. Whereas for the rest of us we probably are more apt to have skills to either verify, asking leading questions, or understand the process so that even if a mistake is made it’s not a matter of trust.

  • Rob

    “high IQ people are extremely gullible in my experience”

    In mine as well, especially among youth. It seems to me that one of the components of a high IQ is a brain that has had an extended sort of neonatal state which aids learning but also extends childish traits like trust. In my experience, lower-IQ children can also seem “smarter” during social play because they act more like little adults, while smart children immerse themselves in a sea of abstract information and do not develop social skills as rapidly nor to the same extent.

    “i have a high IQ”

    Since you put the subject out there, what is your IQ, Razib? If you don’t mind me asking….

  • Clark

    The other issue might be a lot of high IQ people are on the autism scale and so have a harder time “getting” social issues like when it’s appropriate to trust or not trust. (I say since I suspect I was borderline Asperger at best as a kid)

    Add in that many high IQ people whether because of autistic elements or not tend to socialize differently so they just don’t have the experiences other kids might have.

  • leviticus

    The information belies the complaints of commentators who argue that the free flow of information on the internet and the 24/7 News cycle has destroyed popular trust in government and cultural elites.

    The high levels of vague mistrust in Organized Religion don’t make me, an agnostic who is a political secularist, feel any better. I suspect many of the “Only Some” crowd might call themselves “spiritual” and would feel strongly that we need to “respect other viewpoints” even if they run counter to scientific inquiry. Considering the history of anti-intellectualism and spiritual romper-room behavior found in sects of Christianity and other major world religions, I wouldn’t even interpret that graph to mean the US is a secular country.

    While all the information is interesting, I’m not sure that the first 6 graphs fit with the rest of the information. If we had more context, perhaps. I could see where, for political and cultural reasons, a relatively “trusting” intellectual person might rate low in trusting the Military or Organized Religion, with their attitudes reversed amongst the less trusting, lower IQ crowd. I’ve seen many real life examples of both.

    We need a useful term for individuals, who might be low IQ, but are social savants. I use “savy”, where I’m from they used to call such people “skinny” (perhaps from PA Dutch influence).

  • Pingback: Trust and education — Evolving Economics

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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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