What is Trust?
One of the most important components of social life is trust. Trust is the basis of human relationships. It is the expectation that people will do what they say they will do, the belief that people are basically honest. Trust is the expectation that people will take into account your interests as they make their decisions, that they are not self-centred.
Trust is the lubricant of social interactions. Those who trust are able to negotiate quickly and easily. They cooperate well with others. On the other hand, those who do not trust other people surround themselves with means of checking others. They will invest in security systems. They will spend time checking people’s credentials and their record of delivering what they promised. Low levels of trust lead to a weak civil society and, it has been argued, inhibits economic development (Misztal 1996, p.196-7).
In her seminal book, Trust in Modern Societies, Barbara Misztal sees trust as a dimension of the view that people have of the society in which they live. It is a belief that the social world is stable. At the same time, the building of trust can be a strategy for securing the stability of the social order (Misztal 1996, p.11). It is interesting to note that the level of trust in society is seen by the United Nations Human Development Programme as one of the measures by which societies should be evaluated.
One of the grounds of trust has often been that people shared common values and views of life. The homogeneous village, where everyone knows each other, where they practise their religious faith together, and where they have been raised with common values, has sometimes been seen as the epitome of the trusting environment. People often find it difficult to trust people who are different from themselves in their ethnicity and religious faith, for example. Yet, even in homogeneous villages, there is not always a high level of trust.
In any relationships, trust can be broken. In families, where people know each other well, people do not always act in the interests of the other, and trust does not always exist. As members of a family, for example, fail to take into account the needs and interests of other family members, it becomes difficult for the family to cooperate.
Levels of Trust in Different Countries
Because people tend to trust others who are like themselves, there is a tendency for people to distrust foreigners or people from different backgrounds (Misztal 1996, p.192). Australia is a highly diverse and multicultural community and it might be expected that the diversity would contribute to lower levels of trust than would be found in more homogeneous societies.
However, the International Social Survey Program (2009) shows that Australians have relatively high levels of trust compared with many other countries. As shown in Fig.1, the levels of trust are much higher in the Scandinavian countries of Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland, and a little higher in Austria, Switzerland and New Zealand than in Australia. Trust was higher in Ukraine when this survey was undertaken in 2009, but would have certainly been eroded in the events of 2014. However, trust is much higher in Australia than in most other parts of the world including many countries in Europe.
Among the 44 countries where trust was measured, the lowest levels of trust were found in Turkey and Croatia, Chile, Cyprus and Arabic Israel. Totalitarian societies which keep control through fear, suspicion and intolerance, have low levels of general social trust (Misztal 1996, p.195). So also do those societies where there is a high level of inequality between the rich and poor.
One might expect homogeneity of religious faith in a country to contribute to high levels of trust. However, a number of countries have a high level of religious homogeneity and low levels of trust including:
• Turkey where 99% of people are Muslims,
• Croatia where 88% are Catholics,
• Cyprus where 99% are Greek Orthodox (in the section of the divided country surveyed),
• Dominican Republic where 79% are Catholics, and
• Italy where 89% are Catholics.
Further, in all those countries with low levels of trust, the large majority of people saw themselves as very religious:
• 76% in Turkey,
• 66% in Croatia,
• 88% in Cyprus,
• 77% in Dominican Republic, and
• 77% in Italy.
Being religious, or even homogeneity in religious faith, does not mean high levels of trust. In fact, across all the 44 countries that participated in the ISSP survey, those who described themselves as religious were less trusting than those who were not religious: 37 per cent of those people who described themselves as religious, compared with 45 per cent of those who said they were not religious, affirming that people could usually be trusted.
Internationally, then, being religious is correlated with a lack of trust. One might wonder whether that has to do with religious beliefs that human beings are essentially sinful, (and to put it in extreme terms, deserving of hell) and therefore cannot be trusted. The survey showed that just 31 per cent of people who believe in hell feel that other people can generally be trusted, compared with the higher rates of trust (46%) among those who rejected belief in hell.
While explicit religious beliefs may have some impact, psychologists have suggested that the biggest influence on trust is people’s experience of other people and of the society in which they live. For example, the person who sees his or her partner consistently making decisions for the benefit of the other at some cost to themselves is more likely to trust that partner (Simpson 2007). On the other hand, as Misztal notes, there has been a long history in some places, such as parts of Italy, where people feel no moral obligation to anyone outside the immediate family. Consistent experiences of the failure of others to consider one’s interests lead to lack of trust (Misztal 1996, p.193). If other people with whom one mixes are usually honest and trustworthy, and if the society is experienced as being well-ordered and law-abiding, then it is likely that trust will increase.
Factors in the Development of Trust
As the psychologist, Erik Erikson (1950), pointed out, the development of trust begins with the early experiences of human beings. As a baby finds that it can trust its parents to fulfil its needs within its first year of life, so an attitude of trusting the world develops. Erikson argues that the failure to develop that trust results in fear and a belief that the world is inconsistent and unpredictable.
However, trust does vary according to one’s situation after those early childhood years. To some extent, it has to do with one’s control over one’s situation. Those people who have most control generally feel the most secure and have the highest levels of trust. Hence, we find that people in the middle years of life, particularly between the ages of 50 and 59, have higher levels of general social trust, while both younger people and the elderly have lower levels of trust.
This sense of control is also significant in relation to education. In fact, the strongest factor in the levels of general social trust is education. Among Australians, of people with a university degree, 68 per cent said that they could usually trust most people, compared with just 47 per cent of those who did not have a university degree.
In Australia, the levels of trust vary according to the type of community in which one lives as shown in Table 1. While there is a high level of trust in rural areas or villages, where most people know each other face to face, in larger rural towns the levels of trust are much lower. In fact, there are higher levels of trust in the cities where more people have a higher level of education and a stronger sense of personal control over one’s situation than in most rural towns. By far the highest levels of education are found in the inner metropolitan areas of major cities, and it is here where the levels of general social trust are highest.
Trust is also higher among those who have lived in a wider variety of contexts, and particularly among those who have lived overseas.
• 55% of Australians who have lived in different countries usually trust others; compared with
• 51% of those who have lived in different places in the same country; and
• 42% of those who have always lived in the same neighbourhood.
The Religious Factors
It has been noted that, internationally, the level of religiosity is negatively related to trust. However, in Australia religious faith in general, and involvement in religious communities in particular, correlates positively with trust. Indeed, regression analysis shows that the frequency of attendance at religious services is the second most important variable in determining a person’s level of general social trust and accounts for about 10 per cent of the variation in people’s levels of trust, over and above the 24 per cent that is accounted for by education.
The following percentages of people say people can usually be trusted:
• 56% of those who attend a church monthly or more often;
• 51% of those who attend a church occasionally; and
• 44% of those who never attend a church.
Religious belief does have an independent impact on levels of trust. Those who most firmly believe in God tend to have higher levels of trust, irrespective of whether they attend a church or not. The level of confidence in belief in God accounts for about 4 per cent in the variation of levels of trust in the Australian population.
However, the level of church involvement has a much greater impact than one’s confidence in belief in God or than one’s particular beliefs. It would appear that, in general, the experience of church attendance contributes to people experiencing a community that is trustworthy and supportive, and this experience helps people to trust others in the wider community.
A religious group which does not fit this broad picture, the Pentecostals, as measured in the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes, had a particularly low level of general social trust. It is also noteworthy that that low level of trust was also reflected in their attitudes towards other religions. Around 78 per cent of Baptists, Catholics, and Uniting Church people said they respected all other religions, as did 65 per cent of Anglicans and Lutherans. Just 39 per cent of Pentecostals said they respected other religions.
There are many elements that contribute to the levels of trust in a society. Trust begins in the earliest years of life through the initial experiences of relationships. It is moulded by the experience of society itself. A well-ordered society in which most people do what is expected of them builds trust. The sense of control that one has over one’s life and over one’s personal situation also contributes significantly to trust and this sense of control is closely related to levels of education.
Religious beliefs can have an impact on trust. The sense that there is a benevolent God who has ultimate control of life can contribute to trust. On the other hand, the belief that the world is radically evil and is in desperate need of conversion can be a factor in distrust of other people, particularly those outside one’s religious community.
More important than belief, however, is the experience of religious communities themselves. The experience of a community which is trustworthy and supportive, that lives by the values that it proclaims, contributes to trust. The trustworthiness and the support that people find in such a community helps them to trust people in the wider society.
Erikson, Erik 1963. Childhood and Society, New York: Norton.
Misztal, Barbara A. 1996, Trust in Modern Societies: The Search for the Bases of Social Order, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Simpson, Jeffrey 2007, ‘Psychological Foundations of Trust’, Current Directions in Psychological Science, Vol. 16, no. 5.
The international data on trust was from the International Social Survey Program 2009 data file, ZA4950_f1.sav. (www.issp.org). The Australian version of this data is: Evans, A. 2009. AuSSA_A_religiosity.sav (computer file), The Australian Survey of Social Attitudes, Australian Social Science Data Archives, Australian National University, Canberra.
This article was first published in Pointers: the Quarterly Bulletin of the Christian Research Association, Vol. 24, no.2, June 2014. pp. 5-8.