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Social trust matters. There is good evidence that it is a primary indicator for economic growth. Trust improves cooperative behaviour, reduces transaction costs and facilitates investment. It’s one of the key markers of social cohesion and is widely considered to be an important precondition for the functioning of societies in which everyday activities involve daily interactions with strangers.

It makes no sense to support solutions for the common good if you don’t trust that most other people will do the same. So, without social trust, our biggest social problems stand little chance of being successfully tackled.

The fact that levels of social trust in the UK are low and getting lower is therefore very worrying. The proportion of people who say that they generally trust other people dropped from 60% in 1959 to 30% in 2005 and has declined even further since then. While this is a pattern reflected globally, the most severe declines in trust are to be found in the UK and the US.

Given that social trust is so important, and is continuing to fall, finding ways of restoring it is arguably the most fundamental challenge of our time.

Given that social trust is so important, and is continuing to fall, finding ways of restoring it is arguably the most fundamental challenge of our time.

Relatively little is known about how trust arises. Robert Putnam has put forward a case suggesting that it derives from participation in groups. His argument is that we learn to trust through successful cooperation with others in the pursuit of common objectives. In support of his view, he presents evidence from the US that people who are members of associations are more likely to be trusting.

However, there is conflicting evidence from other countries which demonstrates that this correlation does not always hold. Furthermore, Putnam’s data from the US doesn’t reveal anything about the direction of causality and there is nothing to say that people who are more trusting are more likely to join associations rather than the inverse. Indeed, an Italian study found that interpersonal trust seems to encourage civic engagement.

It seems highly likely that there is more to the development of social trust than soccer clubs and singing groups. It has recently been argued that the real route to increasing trust is to reduce inequality, and it seems probable that the relationship between equality and trust is very important. However, reducing inequality is no small task, will require multi-level change and won’t be achieved in a hurry. Therefore, we need to identify more directly implementable ways of enhancing social trust.

One thing that might help would be if we had more opportunities to discover that strangers are more worthy of our trust than we imagine them to be. This would inevitably involve talking to each other and finding at least some common ground. What is it about particular interactions that results in us feeling a sense of trust? I’d love to hear about examples of experiences people have had which have led to feelings of generalised trust. Please get in touch if anything comes to mind.


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