2.2. Explaining Generalized Trust
Many different explanations have been offered in the literature to account for variations across individuals and across time and space in generalized trust. These perspectives have highlighted factors operating at different levels—micro (individual), meso or macro. We will only discuss those suggesting individual level determinants as these are the factors we can address with our data. Among these theories, some focus on conditions prevailing in early childhood while others highlight events and processes occurring later in life. Focusing on different life stages, these theories are of obvious relevance for this article. If generalized trust is mostly the product of early childhood socialization and changes little thereafter, the material circumstances and opportunities experienced during early adulthood, as the focus of this article, will not play much of a role in influencing trust.
Scholars emphasizing early childhood as the key formative period for generalized trust consider parent-child interactions as crucial (e.g., Wuthnow 1997
; Uslaner 2002
). Caring parents, according to Uslaner, instill a feeling of self-confidence in their children, making them less anxious in their contacts with other people. They also lead by example: “Parents who are trusting, tolerant, and involved in their communities are role models leading children to trust” (ibid., p. 93). By learning to trust their caregiver, children develop the belief that human beings in general are trustworthy, responsible and dependable and carry this disposition with them for the rest of their lives (Wrightsman 1992
). This early childhood socialization perspective also broadly includes studies emphasizing the importance of social background. Children growing up in affluent families are less likely to be a victim of crime and abuse, which have been identified as particularly negative influences on trust (Ferraro 1995
), and are more likely to develop a lasting optimistic outlook in life, including a perception that other people are trustworthy and benevolent (Brehm and Rahn 1997
Others have argued that generalized trust is also shaped by experiences later in life. Glanville and Paxton
) have coined this view the social learning perspective. A key assumption of this perspective is that people continuously adjust their trust in others through interactions with various people in different contexts. As Stack
(1978, p. 563
) put it: “Each individual encounters a variety of others who treat him positively or negatively, who keep their promises or do not. Each person generalizes from these past experiences in the process of developing expectancies about how the next person will treat him”. As experiences vary across different social domains, people’s levels of trust depend on social context. Generalized trust is the average outcome of all these different experiences (Rotter 1971
). Glanville and Paxton’s
) analyses of the Social Trust Survey data primarily support the social learning perspective as they find that people develop trust through their interactions with different groups of people.
The social learning perspective can be said to broadly incorporate all approaches emphasizing specific conditions and experiences during adolescence and adulthood as key drivers of generalized trust. This is because the causal narratives of these approaches all point to social interactions as a key mechanism through which a highlighted condition influences trust, as discussed in further detail below. Conditions that have received a lot of attention in the literature include participation in all kinds of associations (aka the social capital approach) and educational attainment. Research on the influence of employment and tenure has been notably sparser.
The approach that has no doubt attracted the greatest amount of attention is the social capital theory as advanced by Robert Putnam
). It postulates that participation in organizations and networks generates norms of reciprocity and cooperation through social interactions with other members. These norms in turn command and thus foster generalized trust and other civic qualities such as tolerance, a sense of moderation and public spiritedness. Social capital can be said to operate both at the individual level, by making individuals who participate more trusting, and at the meso level by enhancing the trust levels of both participants and non-participants in communities with dense social networks. In other words, social capital has positive externalities making it similar to a public good (Putnam 2007
). A wealth of research has explored these assumptions, particularly the link between individual-level participation and trust. The results have been mixed. Some find a strong link between membership in civic associations and generalized trust (e.g., Brehm and Rahn 1997
; Stolle and Rochon 1998
). However, as these studies relied on cross-sectional data they could not determine the direction of causality (Sturgis et al. 2012
). This is important for the link between participation and trust as it makes sense to expect a reverse effect as well, i.e., of more trusting people being more inclined to become active participants. Studies relying on longitudinal data with repeated measures of both outcomes and predictors are able to assess reverse causality and they have generally not been as supportive of social capital theory. Controlling for prior levels of trust, Claibourn and Martin
), Li et al.
) and Sturgis et al.
), for instance, have not found a link between membership in voluntary organizations and subsequent levels of generalized trust.
Social capital theorists, however, point out that not just any social networks will yield generalized trust but only those that are open and that interconnect a wide variety of people (i.e., ‘bridging’ social capital) (Putnam 2000
; Burt 2005
). Closed networks consisting of strong ties between very similar people (‘bonding’ social capital), in contrast, may enhance particularized trust but could be detrimental to generalized trust. In agreement with this claim, Paxton
) found that membership in connected
associations, as opposed to membership in isolated associations, is linked to higher levels of generalized trust. In further support of this conjecture, and using longitudinal data, Lopaciuk-Gonczaryk
) found an increase in generalized trust to be linked with an expansion
of the network of acquaintances (i.e., bridging social capital) and a decrease
in the family and friends network (bonding social capital).
Education has been argued to foster generalized trust by enhancing people’s cognitive skills and by inculcating trust as a social norm. Better cognitive skills enable people to process more information and interpret the behaviours of others more accurately, making the actions of other people and the interactions with them more transparent and predicable (Knack and Keefer 1997
; Knack and Zak 2002
). The socialization function of education concerns teaching young people to have an open mind to other people, to believe in their trustworthiness and to treat them with respect (Bjørnskov 2007
; Stubager 2008
). The longer individuals stay in the education system, the more they are socialised in these norms. There is also strong empirical evidence for the idea that individual educational attainment enhances generalized trust. In a meta-analysis of 28 studies, Huang et al.
), for instance, found that one additional year of schooling increases generalized trust by 4.6% of a standard deviation.
Having a rewarding and well-paid job is also seen as conducive to trust. Work of this kind offers people economic and social status, which can be said to foster generalized trust in several ways. First, it allows individuals to take greater risks and incur greater losses, which are a precondition for placing trust in people one does not know (Laurence 2015
). Second, and more relevant from the social learning perspective with its focus on social interactions, a well-regarded job commands respect and better treatment from others, leading to higher levels of self-esteem and to more positive opinions about other people (Paxton 1999
; Delhey and Newton 2003
). Work further offers a social network in which norms of social trust, cooperation and reciprocity can thrive (Putnam 2000
) (see the discussion of social capital above). Consequently, being unemployed or losing
one’s job have been linked with lower life satisfaction, declining self-confidence and greater anxiety (Waters 2007
), frames of mind that have been identified as strong drivers of distrust (Paxton 1999
To our knowledge, there are no studies linking tenure (i.e., owning one’s own home; renting privately or from the council; living with parents) specifically to generalized trust, but the argument that homeownership creates better citizens is well established in the literature. This argument is based on the idea that home owners have more incentives to get involved in local community life as the value of their homes depends directly on the quality of the neighbourhood (DiPasquale and Glaeser 1998
). Thus, to the extent that participating in local networks fosters trust through social interactions (see the discussion of social capital above), homeownership could be related to higher levels of generalized trust. Participation in neighbourhood activities and civic participation in general have indeed been found to be higher among homeowners than tenants controlling for socio-demographic factors and neighbourhood characteristics (Manturuk et al. 2010
). In contrast to that of homeowners, the social networks of tenants renting from the local council are often portrayed as detrimental to social cohesion. Policy discourses characterize these networks as typical of socially disadvantaged people more broadly and as consisting of tight-knit groups (i.e., bonding social capital) that foster norms of worklessness, exclusion and hostility to the wider society (Tyler 2013
; Matthews and Besemer 2015
). It might further be postulated that homeownership fosters generalized trust by giving home owners the sense of security and material resources to reach out and take risks. Conversely, the insecurity experienced by tenants renting privately, who can be evicted from their homes with a two months notice by their landlords, may well contribute to a sense of anxiety and distrust.
The issue of reverse causality is also relevant with respect to three last-named conditions. It makes, for instance, sense to expect that trust helps to gain higher qualifications, find better work and buy a property. In the empirical analyses that follow we will use the CELS longitudinal data with repeated measures of trust, enabling us to address this problem.