Monday, June 13, 2011

Trusting for fairness

The role of trust in understanding how societies and individuals function is a fascinating topic, and one I don't feel like I coherently understand. High-trust countries function better than low-trust countries do, and they're more desirable places to live.

What is a high-trust society? Trust for family members and trust for strangers are two distinct things, and may even be inversely correlated. It is the latter--trust for strangers--that is generally referred to when levels of societal trust are discussed or measured, however. In a post where Arnold Kling takes a stab at it, commenter Lars Smith pithily defines it for me:
A high trust society is one where vegetables can be sold unattended on the roadside, placed in boxes together with a price list, a pair of scales, and a cigar box for the money.
And of course this works fantastically if everyone plays by the rules--no need for the deadweight labor loss of guarding the vegetables, wrangling in court with those accused of trying to steal them, and ultimately punishing them for their theft. When the rules are breached though, it doesn't, and there is only so much we can expect a pro bono unassuming local guy to do.

Trustworthiness is a desirable trait at every societal level save for the individual one (at least in certain circumstances, including the obvious ones like being able to successfully steal merchandise from a retailer without being caught). Being trusting of others, however, is not necessarily so--naivete is not self-evidently desirable like trustworthiness is, and being overly trusting allows for free riders and cheats to gain more from their free riding and cheating, thus incentivizing them to do more of it in the future.

There is a chicken-and-egg question to ponder here, too. Are Scandinavians more trusting than Brazilians by natural disposition, or are they more trusting because other Scandinavians are more deserving of trust than other Brazilians are? Both reasons, probably. Is, ceteris paribus, it better to be a trusting person or one who is suspicious of others? Holding all other things equal when asking a question like that is virtually impossible to do.

That said, my working assumption is that a trusting society, irrespective of how trustworthy members of said society are, is preferable to one in which most people are suspicious of others. The US is usually considered a mid-to-high trust society, lower than Northwestern Europe but higher than South America, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Tapping the GSS, the following tables offer some insight into how relatively trusting various demographic groups are in the US.

The trust item employed here was introduced in 2010, so all the results have contemporary relevance. The question, set on a five-point scale, asks each respondent if he thinks most people try to be fair with him or try to take advantage of him when they get the chance. The higher the score, the more trusting of others the group is. The standard deviation for the entire respondent pool is 1.37.

By race:


By intelligence via wordsum vocabulary test scores, with respondents broken up into five categories; Really Smarts (wordsum score of 9-10, comprising 13% of the population), Pretty Smarts (7-8, 26%), Normals (6, 22%), Pretty Dumbs (4-5, 27%), and Really Dumbs (0-3, 12%):

Really smarts
Pretty smarts
Pretty dumbs
Really dumbs

By religious belief:

Uncertain believers
Firm believers

By partisan identification:


By political orientation:


By educational attainment:

< High school
High school grad
Some college
Bachelor's degree
Graduate degree

By age:


Educated, intelligent, white, Republican, older, and agnostic--these are the characteristics of a high-trust individual. Save for agnosticism, these are also all characteristics of the America of the past. Immigration-driven changes in the US' demography are ensuring that this country becomes a less trusting one in the future than it is today.

GSS variables used: FAIR5(1-5), RACECEN1(1)(2)(4-10)(15-16), AGE, EDUC(0-11)(12)(13-15)(16-17)(18-20), GOD(1)(2)(3-5)(6), POLVIEWS(1-3)(4)(5-7), PARTYID(0-1)(2-4)(5-6)


Ed Tom Kowalsky said...

"Immigration-driven changes in the US' demography are ensuring that this country becomes a less trusting one in the future than it is today."

That is, as Frank Zappa would say, the "crux of the biscuit."

America's white oldsters, the vast majority of whom are ensconced in safe, white neighborhoods, live in a cocoon where trustfulness is warranted. With the passing of time and the browning of America, safe white enclaves will disappear and even whites, lettered in the hard school of of new realities, will cease being trusting.

As another musical outfit, The Temptations, once said, "You can run, run, run, but you sure can't hide."

Painlord2k said...

What will happen in high trust societies when someone is discovered to break the rules?
What will differ from low trust society?

Painlord2k said...

High IQ, wealthy, people can trust others because they are a bit more resilient than others. They can take the occasional loss and recover easily from it. But they can do the costs for the defectors very high, simply by refusing to interact with them in the future.

Anonymous said...

Swedes are high trust because they can trust other Swedes most of the time.

I once lived in a gorgeous Swedish village. The local used-car dealer left the doors of his cars unlocked outside business hours. One could jump inside, pop the hood and pop the trunk. My brother-in-law left his small boat at the harbour all summer(one pull and you'd be off). My mother-in-law arranged for me to sleep in the same bed as her 18 yo daughter.

How I laughed at them. How I loved them.

Anonymous said...

Come on be real, you don't think non-whites are more distrustful due real racist events, many that have happened to them personally. Black people really did not have the right to vote in my lifetime. Less than 50 years ago the cops used to Kill black people for protesting racism. I am white and lucky, if I was a minority in this country I would be just a bit scared at times

Ed Tom Kowalsky said...

I suspect black mistrust stems far more from dealing with other blacks than with non-black racists. Black-on-black crime far outstrips white-on-black crime, and blacks are roughly twice as likely to commit "hate crimes" against whites as the obverse. Also, black men commit a vastly disproportionate amount of rapes (this is why they're not classed as "hate crimes"), and many of them are against white women. And interestingly enough white male rape of black women is so rare as to be statistically significant; it has taken a French socialist potentate to queer that stat.

In short, whites have far more to fear from blacks than blacks do from whites.

Jehu said...

I've seen the equivalent of the example (unattended sale of items) in some smaller towns on the Oregon coast, typically with firewood piles and a cashbox. I wonder what fraction of our GDP would be totally irrelevant if trust were high enough that such self-service and lack of guard labor were the norm.

Audacious Epigone said...


It's more than just how high-trusting people can punish cheats in the future by avoiding them, it's also that high-trust people are presumably less likely to take advantage of others even if given the opportunity. I think they call that "projection bias" in the field of psychology.


A Pleasantville worth saving, if only there was a way to do so.


Could be, though the stats Ed gives make it clear that for at least the last several decades, whites have a lot more to fear from blacks than viceversa.


Great question. It's obviously something greater than zero. Ignoring this is one reason the benthamite collectivist view that a high IQ population is bad is so fallacious.

Anonymous said...

Criminey, I wouldn't even trust myself in bed with a sister-in-law.

as said...

Pizza deliverymen.

I've noticed that when you give the money to an American, they just take it.

On the other hand, when you give money to an immigrant (like once this Eastern European), they count it.

In India, where my family is from, you either have to count the money out when you pay for something or the other person will count it in front of you. Hard and fast rule.

I guess I'm part of the problem in the US.

Ed Tom Kowalsky said...

Well, as said, that could be plain laziness (or hastyness) on the part of Yank pizza deliverymen.

hbd chick said...

"A high trust society is one where vegetables can be sold unattended on the roadside, placed in boxes together with a price list, a pair of scales, and a cigar box for the money."

i live in just such a place! and this is how i buy my vegetables (the ones i don't grow myself, that is.) makes me smile everytime i make a purchase -- 'cause i used to live in other places where such a system would NEVER work, so i know how good i have it.

Audacious Epigone said...

HBD chick,


Ed Tom Kowalsky said...

An elderly couple I knew who lived outside of Strinestown, Pennsylvania used to practice the honors system with the produce they sold by the roadside.