Trust is important stuff.  When we freely choose to depend on others, it allows us to avoid the social and economic costs of having to contract, monitor and control.  Our general willingness to trust others is part of the social capital that allows communities to thrive.

One of the things that allows us to be trusting of others is our socioeconomic status.  One way to think about this relationship is just to think of trusting in terms of economic and social costs.  The more often we trust, the more we benefit, but the more often we will encounter acts of trust breach.  When we are socially and economically secure, we are more capable of weathering these costs in order to gain the benefits of our overall pattern of trust.  Dietland Stolle summarizes this perspective:   “The richer the individual and the higher [their] professional status, the less costly it is if her or she might be wrong.  A rich, financially-secure person can afford to trust more.”

But status doesn’t just change our personal resources.   I just read two recent papers with two different lenses on status — with divergent findings about what status does for trust.  The first was conducted by researchers at UC-Berkeley and the University of Toronto, and appears in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (ungated PDF here).  They had participants play the Trust Game, a game where passing money to your partner increases the total ‘pot’ of money, but where you must depend on your partner to share those gains with you (if you pass money, your partner is free to keep their money, keep your money, and pocket the gains).  They split the players in the game by their socio-economic status, comparing highly-educated, high-earning participants with comparatively poorly-educated, low-earning participants.  They found that low-status players passed their partners more in the Trust Game.  Neat result, right?  With that in mind, turn to a forthcoming paper in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes by Bob Lount and Nate Pettit (gated PDF here).  They also had participants play the Trust Game.  But rather than sorting them by socioeconomic status, they manipulated status.  In one study, they assigned them to a high-status manager role or a low-status subordinate role.  In a second, they had the participants reflect on ways that they had more prestige, respect or status than others (or, by contrast, how they had less of each).  And then, in a final study, they paired student participants with a partner in the game who was either from a higher-status or a lower-status school.  In all three experiments, they found that high-status players passed their partners more in the Trust Game.

So how do we make sense of these two studies’ results? Well, of course, these are different kinds of status:  The first is a structural kind of status, made up by their position in the social and economic system.  The second study dealt with a more psychological sort of status, established by making people think about their prestige and respect.  And, there are different mechanisms at play. The reason the low-status folks in the first paper passed tickets in the Trust Game was because of their social values.  Compared to high-status people, they tended to endorse egalitarian, cooperative values that prioritized others’ outcomes as much as their own, while higher-status participants tended to endorse more individualistic or competitive values.  In the second paper, the reason that high-status people trusted more is because they expected more back.  Thinking of yourself as having prestige, status and respect makes you more likely to receive the types of treatment that are generally afforded to people with high-status positions.

So what does this mean for improving generalized trust?  If you want to improve generalized trust in communities that have low status, the good news is that there is already a good foundation for trust.  People lower in socioeconomic status endorse values that make trust easier to develop.  The bad news is that the experience of being low in status — being denied the respect and deference that others enjoy — can erode willingness to trust as people expect to be treated opportunistically for others.  Designing processes and social structures that afford dignified, civil and respectful treatment of the poor would be a good start.  (This isn’t as obvious as it seems:  Just read Barbara Ehrenreich’s recent column about the ‘dragnet’ treatment of the poor, and you start to get a sense of how we strip status away from those who have the least of it to begin with.)