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Are Distrust and Incivility on the Rise?

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, May 29, 2014
Updated: Thursday, May 29, 2014

Trust in our fellow humans is eroding, according to polls and surveys, and nearly a third of Americans reportedly don't even completely trust their own families.

A Pew Survey on social trends found that the Millennial generation, people ranging in age from 18 to 33, have emerged into adulthood with considerably lower social trust than earlier generations. Asked the long-used social science survey question "Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted, or that you can't be too careful in dealing with people?" only 19 percent of millennials say people can be trusted. By comparison, 31 percent of Gen Xers, those born 1965 to 1980, 40 percent of Baby Boomers, born 1946-1964, and 37 percent of those born in 1945 or before say people can be trusted. The poll, conducted in February, also showed millennials are less attached to religious and political institutions than older people.

An AP-GfK poll conducted in 2013 suggests most Americans are suspicious of each other in daily interactions. Fewer than one third said they trust clerks who swipe their credit cards, other drivers on the road, or strangers they meet traveling. Only a third of those responding to the AP-GfK poll said they thought most people could be trusted. In 1972, half of adults surveyed said others were trustworthy.

Only 69 percent of Americans questioned for a World Values Survey reported that they completely trust their family members. That places the U.S. near the bottom of the 55 countries surveyed on that question. Family trust was reported to be lower only in Ghana, Lebanon, Azerbaijan and the Netherlands, where just 59 percent of respondents reported complete trust in their families. Three quarters of Americans think war is sometimes needed to obtain justice-second only to Pakistan. And 16 percent of Americans surveyed say they carry a gun or other weapon for security. That sounds low, but it places the U.S. third in the world, behind only Libya and Lebanon. See the Washington Post Wonkblog charts on world values.

Social scientists and political analysis say trust is necessary for a civil society-it helps people work together for the common good, and promotes cooperation among people who have different beliefs and backgrounds. April Clark, a Purdue University political scientist, says distrust promotes rancor and incivility. Surveys appear to confirm we have an increasingly wary view of others. Theories differ on why. A USA Today story quotes Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, who says Americans have abandoned clubs and civic associations in favor of watching TV at home, thereby reducing common social experiences and the ties they create. University of Maryland Professor Eric Uslaner studies politics and trust. He writes that economic inequality drives distrust. If you believe the world is a good place and that you can help make it better, you'll be trusting, he says. If you think it's a dark place run by forces beyond your control, you won't.

Uslaner says trust has declined as the gap between rich and poor has grown because more Americans feel they no longer have a shared fate with the affluent and rich. A 2007 Pew Research Center analysis, showing minorities and low income adults had lower levels of social trust than wealthier groups, theorized that people who feel vulnerable or disadvantaged find it riskier to trust "because they are less well-fortified to deal with the consequences of misplaced trust."

Can a more trusting society emerge? Millennials, the digital natives who build their own social networks and use social media with ease, hold the key. Despite their low levels of trust, they are more optimistic than those who've gone before them. The Pew research shows nearly half think America's best years are in the future.

Trust men and they will be true to you. Treat them greatly and they will show themselves great. -Ralph Waldo Emerson

Tags:  buscell  community  complexity matters  culture  research 

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