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.



4 replies
  1. barbara garabedian
    barbara garabedian says:

    "Trust my dog w/ my life but not w/my lunch"…you bet!  I can always get more food, can’t always find another trusting, loyal & devoted companion that cares about me, regardless of the circumstances. Interestingly, these days I think most people would rather trust a dog than a CEO.  The dog is predisposed towards loyalty & demonstrates empathy & kindness towards the owner. We know that we can rely on the dog for the long haul & in many instances, they will be loyal to the death. Assuming of course, that one hasn’t been cruel, mean and hateful to the animal and even then, amazingly, sometimes they still care. 

    Maybe "Doggie 101" should be in the business school curricula.

  2. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    Hmmm, I chose to see this as a flavor of the “nature-nurture” paradigm of personality/character development and also choose to take a meta-physical perspective of trust.


    When our consciousness comes into “form”, i.e, we take on a body and human form, our soul/consciousness is already imbued with several Essential qualities ((BTW, if you happen to be a neuroscience materialist – believe that our entire nervous system functioning, our thoughts, emotions, etc. are all a function of the brain, or at best, the mind and the brain, read no further; if you believe that there is a consciousness apart from the mind/brain, that existed before we came into form, i.e., before we chose to inhabit a body and to be a “human”, then perhaps some of this might resonate…or not).
    Trust is one of the Essential qualities of the soul of our consciousness. Several spiritual traditions refer to this type of trust as “Basic Trust” (other Essential qualities are love, compassion, will, steadfastness, courage, strength, etc.) These are referred to as “Essential” as they are part of our soul’s make-up, not our brain, mind or nervous system. Essential qualities are par of our True Nature. Thus, we are born “trusting.” (read: nature not nurture).
    In childhood, one needs an environment that is supportive, nourishing of this natural pattern – one that actualizes our “natural” way of being, i.e , “trusting” – an environment is that is conducive to both being oneself and growing in a way that is “natural”.
    In the case of our primary caregivers, e.g., parents, grandparents, etc., we can grow “naturally) if we are surrounded by folks (read nurture) who are not only welcoming and loving, but also caring, appropriate, empathic, responsive and capable. (IMHO, less than .5% of families provide such an environment even though these primary caregivers are “doing their best” to do so and even “think” they are doing so.
    When our physical, emotional, psychological and social environment, growing up, is adequate enough, the child feels “held” (cared for and appropriately loved. In this case, the child manifests and actualizes Basic Trust. Here, the child does not yet know of trouble and is thus carefree and naturally relaxed. This is the state of Basic Trust. In this environment, the child experiences presence, and perceives the environment as trust itself. The child feels “in good hands.” The child does not think about trust or trusting; the child senses it. So, the child’s True Nature is unfolding.
    When the child feels and believes her needs will be taken care of, she leaves herself alone, not doing anything to change the state of Basic Trust. In this state, the child grows and develops and allows Basic Trust to support her.
    But, when the environment is not supportive (IMHO, most childhood environments), e.g., unloving, rejecting (emotionally, physically, mentally, psychologically, socially, etc.), inappropriate, unempathic, intrusive, unprotecting, harsh, abusive, non-nourishing, neglecting (e.g., being diapered when one is crying out of hunger, or being fed when one is crying out of a wet diaper, or any other way of being neglected or “unseen”), incompetent, the child’s inner compass, homeostasis is disrupted. He no longer comes from that Essential place of Basic Trust. He does not feel his needs will be met or that things are “all right.” He loses the capacity for Basic Trust (all of this is due to “nurturing” or the lack of it, not “nature.”   
    Most human environments are inadequate, sometimes very much so, and slowly, like erosion, the foundational quality of Basic Trust is lost and the child “learns” (very important notion) not to implicitly trust their reality (learned behavior) – things will not be all right, life will not turn out for the best and this “belief” becomes imprinted on the brain and the attendant feelings associated with not trusting become embedded in the molecules of the body – “This doesn’t “feel” right” when in a circumstance that triggers mistrust.”
    Now, on to adult life where we carry, often unconsciously, all this “stuff”. In this adult state where we don’t trust (others or ourselves), we feel we cannot just “be,” we feel disrupted, edgy, uncomfortable. We feel threatened, and contract. So, in social or business situations or relationships or interactions, we feel frustrated, fear, terror, disintegration, anger, rage, sadness, etc.,
    In this state of mistrusting and feeling what we’re feeling, we become reactive…doing without thinking…and here we lose our “nature”(al) composure and Essential quality of Basic Trust. 
    Those who do personal, inner work, can learn to re-access their Basic trust and can deal with what others might call “untrusting” situations. Those are self-aware and who truly “know thyself can deal with business “otherwise untrustworthy-type situations with a sense of grace, harmony and well be-ing, be discerning and responsive, not reactive. Those who are less in touch with their True Self more often become reactive, act out, become anxious, uncomfortable and irritated even when there is no initial or ostensible reason to do so. Why, they learned (nurture) not to trust, even when there is no need to be skeptical.
    In neuroscience language, when two neurons fire together, they wire together. As children, when we associated mistrust and the emotions of mistrust with certain experiences, we bring these reactive ways of be-ing and do-in with us into adulthood – like we are “naturally” mistrusting.
    The issue here is that “reactivity” takes us away from our True Nature (nurture), from our Soul. We stay in our “mind/brain” with its imprints that lead to reactivity, thus keeping us from moving into a higher consciousness that would allow Basic Trust to happen. So, when we enter into various circumstances as adults and are wired to mistrust, we lose the opportunity to “try on” or allow Basic Trust and see what happens, to allow ourselves to be discerning, and we then need to always be in control of our environment….and this need to be in control is often what gets in the way of trusting relationships. Our Basic Trust has eroded as the result of our nurturing…passed on to us by our parents, their parents, their, parents, their parents…and we live a life of reactivity, not presence or harmony. Nature had it right. Nurture interferes.
    So, what’s underneath child-raising (nurturing) norms, behaviors, perspectives, etc. in the different cultures spoken about here…since all humans essentially come into "form" with the Essential quality of Basic Trust intact and available.
  3. Trip Allen
    Trip Allen says:


    Interesting comments on “generalized trust” as being inherited. Along with “generalized trust” being inherited, what other aspects are inherited that reflcet integrity (if that is what you want to call it)? Ethics (such as work and social) and of course beliefs and values. But what transpires as your surroundings and direct/indirect influences change? Lots.

    I would also be curious to know what Eric thinks about “generalized trust” in Aisian cultures (as you and I have discussed before) as he has mentioned American and European but seems to be missing out on Asia.


    Trip Allen, Team Egyii in Singapore

  4. Revoss
    Revoss says:

    what are you talking about? I was just looking for an explanation for my thesis paper for why grandparents should be trusted. It is hard to come up with an explanation, but i came up with this. You trust them because they’ve always been there for you when you’ve needed help…Do you really need a college education to study “generalized trust”? I mean come on. seriously? Get real.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *