US social trust is draining: Poll

US social trust is draining: Poll
Sat Nov 30, 2013 22:21:19

Americans don’t trust each other in everyday encounters raising concerns in the US of a draining social trust, a new study has found.

An AP-GfK poll conducted last month found that Americans are suspicious of each other in everyday encounters. Less than one-third expressed a lot of trust in clerks who swipe their credit cards, drivers on the road, or people they meet when traveling.

"I'm leery of everybody," said Bart Murawski, 27, of Albany, N.Y. "Caution is always a factor."

In fact, some studies suggest it's too late for most Americans alive today to become more trusting, the Associate Press wrote in a report.

That research says the basis for a person's lifetime trust levels is set by his or her mid-twenties and unlikely to change, other than in some unifying crucible such as a world war.

There's no single explanation for Americans' loss of trust.

The best-known analysis comes from "Bowling Alone" author Robert Putnam's nearly two decades of studying the United States' declining "social capital," including trust.

Putnam says Americans have abandoned their bowling leagues and Elks lodges to stay home and watch TV. Less socializing and fewer community meetings make people less trustful than the "long civic generation" that came of age during the Depression and World War II.

University of Maryland Professor Eric Uslaner, who studies politics and trust, puts the blame elsewhere: economic inequality.

Trust has declined as the gap between the nation's rich and poor gapes ever wider, Uslaner says, and more and more Americans feel shut out.

They've lost their sense of a shared fate. Tellingly, trust rises with wealth.

"People who believe the world is a good place and it's going to get better and you can help make it better, they will be trusting," Uslaner said. "If you believe it's dark and driven by outside forces you can't control, you will be a mistruster."

African-Americans consistently have expressed far less faith in "most people" than the white majority does. Racism, discrimination and a high rate of poverty destroy trust.

Nearly 8 in 10 African-Americans, in the 2012 survey conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago with principal funding from the National Science Foundation, felt that "you can't be too careful." That figure has held remarkably steady across the 25 GSS surveys since 1972.

The decline in the American nation's overall trust quotient was driven by changing attitudes among whites.

It's possible that people today are indeed less deserving of trust than Americans in the past, perhaps because of a decline in moral values.

"I think people are acting more on their greed," said Murawski, a computer specialist who says he has witnessed scams and rip-offs. "Everybody wants a comfortable lifestyle, but what are you going to do for it? Where do you draw the line?"

Ethical behavior such as lying and cheating are difficult to document over the decades.

It's worth noting that the early, most trusting years of the GSS poll coincided with Watergate and the Vietnam War. Trust dropped off in the more stable 1980s.

Crime rates fell in the 1990s and 2000s, and still Americans grew less trusting.

Many social scientists blame 24-hour news coverage of distant violence for skewing people's perceptions of crime.


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