Boston Trust

Last week, trust was destroyed. Then it was rebuilt.

At least, that’s the party line in all the media and the social buzz channels. But it’s not the whole story. The whole story is, unfortunately, not so good.

Particularized Trust and Generalized Trust

Dr. Eric Uslaner, arguably the world’s leading academic on the subject of trust, makes a key distinction between two types of trust – particularized and general. Particularized trust is experience-based trust in specific things – particular people, or institutions.

Particularized trust is what happens when we experience people to be similar to us. When a runner stopped to aid a race spectator, for example, or when the citizens of Watertown recognized that the police were on their side. This kind of trust is what we hear talked about most in the press. It’s what we mean when we say “trust takes time.” (Which it doesn’t, by the way; but that’s another story).

The other kind of trust – what Uslaner calls generalized trust, or moralistic trust – is the really powerful kind. Uslaner explains:

[Moralistic] trust doesn’t depend upon evidence or experience. It is the belief that we can trust people whom we don’t know and who may be different from ourselves. This is the sort of trust that helps societies solve key problems. It is more based upon our belief that we ought to trust people—the Golden Rule—than our experiences with people we know well and who may look and think like ourselves.

This kind of trust changes only glacially from experience. It is not “destroyed in an instant,” as particularized trust can be destroyed by an instance of betrayal. Generalized trust is gotten from our parents, even our grandparents; it’s handed down with mother’s milk.

When someone says, “You’re way too trusting, you know,” that’s the kind of generalized trust you’re not likely to change just because you get burned once.

The Powers of Trust

For all the print space given particularized trust (e.g. trust in banking is down, trust in government is down, Bostonians are wicked trustworthy), high levels of particularized trust are by no means all positive. The worse experiences people have, the more they are tempted to withdraw into tribal groups, where they experience particularized trust – trust in those who are like them, in shared opposition to those who are not. “We” are not going to let “them” stop us.  Boston Strong is a tribal cry in this sense.

But it is generalized trust that makes for powerful societies, efficient economies, flourishing nations – not the tribal bonds of particularized trust. Uslaner:

…particularized trust as a substitute for generalized trust is a negative for a group.  If a group limits its trust, it results in closed minds, cultures, and economies.

And now we can see the sad trade-off in Boston. The story wasn’t Trust Lost and then Trust Regained. It was a slight, but real, loss in moralistic, generalized trust – with a swap-out for particularized trust. Net net, it’s a loss for society.

For all the tribal celebrations and tales of individual courage and grace, the impact of a dent on generalized trust is negative. It will most likely result in pressure against immigration, not in favor of it. It will most likely result in closed borders, not open; more surveillance, not less; more suspicion, not less; and more enmity of “us” against “them.”

Building Generalized Trust

In Uslaner’s latest book – Segregation and Mistrust – he enlists massive amounts of data to show that diversity doesn’t help or hurt generalized trust – it is integration that helps it, and segregation that hurts it. And our society is becoming more, not less, segregated – in housing, in race, in income, in social groups.

The two largest drivers for greater generalized trust, he notes, are high levels of education and low levels of income inequality. It’s not looking good for either these days. Instead, we’re seeing higher levels of the wrong kind of trust – the tribal bonding of like people, trusting each other in a joint mission to make sure that the “others” don’t win.

Uslaner points out that high-generalized trusting people broadly believe two things: that the world is generally getting better, and that they have control over their own lives.

By contrast, low-generalized trusting people believe the world is going to hell in a handbasket, and it’s “those others” who are conspiring to keep “us” down. It’s a society dominated by that kind of thinking that, in extremis, produces nihilistic, desperate bombers.

Talk of “Winning” against “Others” is not a good omen for the important kind of trust. The legacy of the Boston bombings will be more negative than positive.