Who You Gonna Trust–Your Own Eyes, or Your Grandparents?

Eric Uslaner is a respected academic student of trust. He has just published an article in the Oxford Journals Public Interest Quarterly called Where You Stand Depends Upon Where Your Grandparents Sat: the Inheritability of Generalized Trust.

It’s interesting reading. It shows that “generalized trust” is very much an inherited trait.

Uslaner articulates two theories of trust: one says we learn trust experientially, the other says we inherit it from our parents and grandparents. Which is right?

He suggests a clever analysis: if we learn experientially, then living in trustworthy communities ought to affect trust. But if we learn culturally, then who our grandparents were ought to affect our trust levels more than the communities we live in. Who drives trust: my own eyes, or the culture of my grandparents?

The data suggest—drumroll—it’s your grandparents! The cultural explanation has more power than the experiential explanation. Which means, by the way, that the Nordic, British and Germanic cultures foster people who are more likely to trust. Much lower propensity to trust scores come from those with African and Spanish/Latino heritage.

I don’t doubt the data, nor Mr. Uslaner’s logic. However, interpreting trust data is tricky business.

In particular, the “generalized trust” that Uslaner (and many other researchers) talk about is about trusting, not about being trustworthy. More importantly, it’s about a general, abstract sense of trust primarily as it relates to strangers.

Very specifically, "generalized trust" work is often based on longitudinal data from the General Social Survey (by the National Opinion Research Center), which asks three trust questions—variations on “Generally speaking, do you believe that most people can be trusted, or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people?”

In analyzing trust, it’s tempting to emulate the drunk looking for his keys under the streetlamp—not because he lost them there, but because it’s easier to see there. Want valid, survey-based, long-term, cross-cultural data on trust? Then you’ll love focusing on “generalized trust"–because that’s where the streetlamp is. The academics are clear enough about that, but just reading about "generalized trust," it’s easy to forget what’s left out.

And “generalized trust” leaves out an awful lot.

It leaves out biological accounts of trust. Think about the implications for trust in this line: “I trust my dog with my life, but not with my lunch.”

It leaves out the notion of specificity. As another researcher quips, “I trust Bill Clinton with the economy, but not with my daughter. And I trust George W. Bush with my daughter—but not with the economy.” I may trust your recommendation to buy a book on Amazon, but not to recommend a restaurant.

Most importantly, it leaves out personal trust. A general propensity to trust does not explain why Bernie Madoff could con hundreds of highly cynical, suspicious investors (including British, French, South American, Catholic, protestant and Jewish people) into trusted him implicitly.  And while a Brazilian or Argentinian may be quite suspicious of strangers and of institutions, in my own experience they have great ability to trust individuals they have come to know.

There is no contradiction with these notions of trust and the “generalized trust” Uslaner talks about—they are simply different things.  And this isn’t just about academic researchers, either. The business world, e.g. Edelman’s annual Trust Survey, is fixated on the definition of trust as it relates to credible sources of information about a company–itself a fairly narrow subset of trust.

There’s no critique of anyone here, no right or wrong. I’m simply reminding us all that “trust” is an extraordinarily rich, complex and non-obvious nexus of notions.

Caveat Reador.