An interview I did recently with San Fran public radio about my research on inequality, trust, and academic dishonesty.
I am extremely excited to announce that I have accepted a position, beginning July 1st, 2012, as a tenure-track Assistant Professor of Organizational Behaviour in the department of Business Administration at the Asper School of Business, University of Manitoba. I’ll be joining a wonderful group of colleagues and talented students. Indra and I are both very much looking forward to getting settled into our new lives in Winnipeg. Go Bisons!
For those who live their lives in a constant state of embarrassment over their latest slipup or blunder, there may be some hope: Showing embarrassment makes others perceive you as more trustworthy.
In the experiments, some participants “…viewed videos of students recalling their embarrassing moments, while others just saw photos of embarrassing reactions.
In both cases, the observers viewed others who acted embarrassed as more generous and trustworthy than people that acted unscathed by a potentially embarrassing event. The researchers also found that participants trusted others who showed signs of embarrassment in an economic simulation, too.”
Yet another piece of evidence that the right response to a mistake isn’t to deny and dodge blame.
It was Canadian Thanksgiving this weekend, so it seems fitting to share some recent research about why gratitude is so important.
Lots of interesting new trust research lately. A little sampling:
- Unconscious racial biases shape our willingness to trust:
“We … show greater trust in members of those groups toward whom we implicitly feel more favorable, and we do so independently of our explicit consciously accessible beliefs. In other words, our behavior is not driven solely by what we would consciously desire or intend.” (Stanley et al., Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences)
- We cope with stress by increasing our trust:
“The up-regulation of trust is a relationship-focused coping strategy that facilitates the maintenance of social relationships during stressful experiences.” (Koranyi & Rothermund, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology)
- When we don’t trust government, we’re more willing to tolerate law-breakers.
“…low levels of political trust are associated with less support for law compliance within a society. Low trust in political institutions results in less public willingness to defer to decisions taken by those institutions. In the absence of voluntary compliance, governments have to resort to coercive measures to enforce regulations with the result that governing is rendered more difficult and more costly. Therefore, low levels of political trust can undermine the effective governing of a society and carry with them a potential threat for the functioning of democratic processes.” (Marien & Hooghe, European Journal of Political Research)
- Who’s responsible for our declining generalized trust? Mom and Dad.
“We find that over the last decades children increasingly score lower on generalized trust than their parents. Moreover, most parents, independent of their own trust levels, attempt to instill in their children distrust in unknown people.” (Stolle & Nishikawa, Comparative Sociology)
Income inequality doesn’t just make the poor unhappy because they have lower income. It’s because inequality deteriorates their trust in others and their perceptions of fairness:
Using General Social Survey data from 1972 to 2008, we found that Americans were on average happier in the years with less national income inequality than in the years with more national income inequality. We further demonstrated that this inverse relation between income inequality and happiness was explained by perceived fairness and general trust. That is, Americans trusted other people less and perceived other people to be less fair in the years with more national income inequality than in the years with less national income inequality. The negative association between income inequality and happiness held for lower-income respondents, but not for higher-income respondents. Most important, we found that the negative link between income inequality and the happiness of lower-income respondents was explained not by lower household income, but by perceived unfairness and lack of trust.
(Hat tip to Jiyin Cao for the link!)
I’m not sure that the most expedient way to build trust and social capital involves Navy SEALs, but this is still an interesting little result.
Two political scientists had Republicans and Democrats play the Trust Game (a game where players pass money, the passed money is multiplied, but the original passer has to rely on their partner to share the gains). The first time they ran the study, it was a week before the strike that killed Osama Bin Laden. The second time, it was right after Bin Laden’s death. As you can see above, the effect of partisan rivalry on trust disappeared. The most obvious explanation is that the Bin Laden strike boosted (shared) national identity, which made other social categories like political affiliation less salient.
(Before anyone gets too excited about Bin Laden’s lasting effect on restored inter-partisan trust, it’s probably worth noting that the average duration of rally effects is under ten months. And John Sides points out that gains in intragroup trust among Americans might be offset by diminished intergroup trust between Americans and others. All in all, I’m not ready to buy the idea that a stealthed-out Black Hawk is the best tool for building social capital.)
What makes communities in the developing world satisfied with the allocation of aid funds? If you said fair distribution, you’d be right. But fairness isn’t just about equitable distribution. It’s about a transparent process that allows for meaningful input and voice:
“MIT researchers in a recent study looked at two alternative methods for establishing who needs assistance. For 640 villages in Indonesia, they told the communities to figure out for themselves who their neediest families were, and those people would be given aid. They compared this to a survey of household assets including homes, assets, and the level of education of the head of household. The results suggest that community selection, rather than screening based on objective measures of household wealth or consumption, was slightly less accurate relative to matching aid to incomes, but provided much greater satisfaction in the community compared to the empirical measurements…
There was only a minor difference in accuracy between the two methods, but the researchers found the community approach led to 60% fewer complaints, and far fewer difficulties distributing funds, compared to objective methods in the villages. And awarding aid according to measured assets proved less effective than the judgment of the community when selections made adjustments for life circumstances such as widowhood, disability, and serious illness.”
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.)
Terrorism has a direct economic cost on societies, of course. But a new study in the Journal of Peace Research shows that terrorists also cause economic damage to their targets indirectly, by eroding the level of generalized trust. It’s a small effect, but a statistically significant one — and it shows once again that trust is a valuable economic target in conflict.