People celebrating the victorious return of American soldiers from the Gulf War. Manhattan, New York, 1991. Photo by Andrew Holbrooke/Corbis via Getty


Defining social trust is a first step toward nurturing it

People celebrating the victorious return of American soldiers from the Gulf War. Manhattan, New York, 1991. Photo by Andrew Holbrooke/Corbis via Getty

by Kevin Vallier + BIO





Researchers agree that social trust causes many positive social outcomes. But they differ on its definition and causes

At some point in human evolution, humans learned to trust strangers with their lives. Before, social life meant living in a familiar tribe. One might interact with other groups, but that could involve violence as often as, say, trade. Humans trusted those they knew, despite occasional trust in strangers.

As societies grew, humans increased contact with strangers, especially in new urban environments. Somehow, humans learned to get along with people they do not know and will never know. Not every merchant from another country posed a threat. Nor was every traveller criminal.

Our ability to trust those we do not know has also expanded. We now interact with people whose identities we will never know, and with anonymous others within systems we do not understand. Social life has a new essential ingredient: social trust.

Social trust is our faith that strangers will follow established norms. It is not intimate trust, such as that between friends and family, but neither is it institutional trust, such as our trust in democracy or the military. Social trust means trust in diffuse others.

Social trust research is voluminous. Scholars believe it energises effective institutions and delivers valuable social goods. Social trust underpins effective legal systems and democratic consensus, and enhances economic growth, economic equality and psychological wellbeing.

The General Social Survey and the American National Election Survey document that social trust has dramatically declined in the US. In the early 1970s, around half of those surveyed said they trust most people, but today that figure stands nearer to one-third. The changes are cohort effects. Each generation seems less trusting than the last, at least until recently.

Many disciplines study trust, but they do not necessarily have a shared understanding of it

The United States is the only long-established democracy of over fifty for which we have data that has seen a considerable decline in social trust. Some young democracies have seen declines in social trust, like Poland, Chile and Romania, but few older ones.

The meaning of social trust, however, is not self-evident. Many scholarly disciplines study trust, but they do not necessarily have a shared understanding of it. Conceptual analysis can help bring some clarity. Let’s start with defining interpersonal trust and then scale up the account to trust in generalised others.

I think trust is a three-place relation: A trusts B to engage in line of conduct C. To trust another, then, implies that the truster expects the trustee to engage in some line of conduct. Those who trust must think that trustees are willing or disposed to do what the trusters trust them to do. Second, trust requires thinking that the trustee is competent to perform the action we trust her to perform. Third, if John trusts Reba, he must be vulnerable to her or dependent upon her in some way. In paradigmatic cases of trust, we think the truster takes risk in trusting others. Reliance is exposure to disappointment.

Philosophers distinguish trust from mere reliance. I can rely on machines, but I do not trust them. To help elucidate this distinction, philosophers sometimes turn to P F Strawson’s idea of the participant stance. Strawson’s participant stance idea maintains that we recognise others act for reasons and can be held responsible for their actions in a shared moral practice. So trust is reliance from the participant stance towards the person whom you trust.

The truster must also think that the trustee has an adequate moral motivation to Φ. Philosophers working on trust disagree about how to understand exactly what an adequate moral motive means. Some philosophers think it is goodwill, but I argue this condition is too specific. I think John can trust Reba so long as he thinks Reba acts, or is generally willing to act, from moral considerations in the relevant trust circumstances.

We can construe the motives characteristic of trustworthiness as moral reasons to comply with social norms (norms backed by shared expectations that community members should observe the norm). John does not trust Reba to C if he believes that she only Cs because she fears getting caught not Cing. Nor can he trust her if she Cs to gain John’s trust only to betray him. To trust, then, we must think that the relevant norm provides the trustee with sufficient moral reason to act. The trustee has an internal commitment to follow a social norm. She thinks she morally ought to follow it. Or that others think she morally ought to follow it and she fears their sanction.

We can now state some necessary conditions on trust:

Trust: A trusts B to C only when A has a goal and believes (i) that participant B’s Cing is necessary or helpful for achieving the goal and (ii) that B is willing and able to C by complying with social norm S where moral reasons are sufficient to motivate B to comply with S.

Complying with S facilitates or requires the action C that A trusts B to execute. It also requires that moral reasons be sufficient to motivate B to comply with the social norm. Otherwise, we must allow that A can trust B even when A believes B happily ignores her moral reasons.

To scale up to social trust, we must appeal to a social norm type that, drawing on the philosopher Cristina Bicchieri’s account of social norms, I call moral rules. Norms consist of routine social behaviours that follow a public standard and engender moral attitudes over time. People obey conventions because they believe doing so will help them; norm-following sometimes occurs when a person anticipates no benefit from compliance.

Many norms are based on expectations that others will comply with the norm – empirical expectations. For Bicchieri, social norms arise from empirical expectations and normative expectations. Normative expectations imply that people think others believe everyone thinks they ought to obey the norm. In some scenarios, social norm violations yield social sanction. People will blame or punish norm violators.

Social trust is trust that is mass and mutual: community members place it in all or almost all community members

Many normative expectations have a moral character. We see this when violations generate public moral sanction. Upon observing violations, people will typically blame and punish violators, drawing on the followers’ resentment and indignation (or people will at least anticipate blame and punishment). I call these moralised social norms moral rules.

Gerald Gaus develops the idea of moral rules as follows. They are infused with moral emotions, people take as non-arbitrary and categorical, they promote mutual benefit, and they concern how we treat others, they are enforced with social ostracism, and violations are seen as warranting punishment. Social trust is trust that diffuse others will follow moral rules for moral reasons.

Social trust is trust that is mass and mutual: community members place it in all or almost all community members. Large societies typically lack shared goals of substance. So social trust only implies that people believe others are necessary or important to achieve each person or group’s diverse ends. Further, people signal their ability and willingness to act in certain ways by following moral rules. Critically, social trust does not depend on the belief that people will follow only one but rather a broad range of moral rules. Social trust, therefore, carries a generic expectation that members of society will comply with moral rules. Social trust need not require an affective state of security that others will act appropriately. Rather, social trust requires that we believe that most others will abide by a large set of moral rules.

To trust his society, John must believe that other members will act according to shared moral rules, and that these rules allow him to reliably pursue his projects and plans. John can act based on his reasonable expectations about how others will behave. Social trust per se arrives if most members of the public have these expectations.

Here, then, is how I define social trust as it exists within a community or public. A public exhibits social trust to the extent that its participant members generally believe that other participants are necessary or helpful for achieving one another’s goals and that (most or all) members are generally willing and able to do their part to achieve those goals, knowingly or unknowingly, by following moral rules, where moral reasons are sufficient to motivate compliance.

Societies create social trust by means of mass compliance with moral rules. If we think and observe that others comply with moral rules, the necessary empirical expectations exist. Normative expectations backed by punishment must also be in play. Punishment typically plays a central role in stabilising moral rules. Social trust requires a belief that people ordinarily have adequate moral motivation to follow moral rules. They ignore this motivation only as a moral fault.

My view provides reason to expect social trust to be stable over time. We socially trust when we generally believe that others can be trusted. Social trust should not change if we observe a single moral violation. Flouting a traffic norm will not reduce social trust. In such cases, we might partition our trust by context: flouting traffic norms will normally not challenge one’s belief that most people follow most moral rules. Social trust will decline, therefore, when people observe widespread defection from central moral rules. Some trust researchers think that empirical measures of social trust show that trust does not respond to observation. But I argue otherwise.

Social scientists agree that social trust causes many positive social outcomes. But I think we know much less than many think about the causes of social trust. Some familiar tropes about social trust may be false. Increased ethnic diversity only correlates weakly with social trust, as local segregation appears to be the culprit. While economic inequality correlates with social mistrust, the causal arrow is unclear. Economic inequality might lead to division between economic classes. Or high-trust countries may demand more redistribution, as they trust the poor to use their transfers well. More intuitive is that government corruption produces social distrust, especially in the legal system.

But the truth is, we don’t know how people learn and transmit social trust at the micro-level. Social psychologists have shed some light on the causes of trust, but in limited and often artificial social settings. With a clarified concept, we can improve the study of social trust by bringing philosophers and other kinds of scholars together. We should also be able to probe the as of yet unexplored connection between measures of trust and measures of social norms. Indeed, I am hard at work on that project now.





8 February 2023