The Social Trust

A look at the social issues that matter, from public education to social trust, from criminal justice to economic inequality

Why Social Trust Matters

Our ties to strangers helps us succeed

In 1938, Harvard professor Arlen Bock started what became known as the Grant Study. The psychologist pulled together more than two hundred Harvard undergraduates, and his team of researchers examined almost every aspect of the young men. They studied their physical attributes, height, weight, brow ridges, birthmarks. They asked questions about friends, family, and academic studies. The researchers even queried the young men about the daily number “of teaspoons of sugar in his daily coffee or tea.” The subjects could answer anywhere between zero and seven.

When the Grant study began, Bock and the other investigators were interested in the connection between body type and personality. They thought that the ridge of someone’s brow might predict which of the Harvard men would become the next titan of industry. And so every few years, Bock, and later a psychiatrist named George Vaillant, would re-interview the men. They would ask the men about their careers. They would visit their workplaces. One subject became a judge. Another became an architect.

Over time, the focus of the project changed, too, and the researchers began looking more closely at the men’s social lives. Vaillant in particular became interested in how the men understood their lives. He wanted to know how the men “sustained a sense of happiness,” as he writes in his book Triumphs of Experience, and today the Grant Study stands as perhaps the most comprehensive analysis of personal well-being ever created.

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I first came across Vaillant’s work in an blog item by Scott Stossel for the Atlantic. A few years ago, Stossel also wrote a powerful feature story, “What Makes Us Happy” on Vaillant’s work, which provides an important overview of the study. And what struck me the most about the study was the power of trust, and the research showed that the men who had "warmer" relationships with their parents and later with friends and spouses were among the happiest, healthiest, and most successful. Men with "warmer" relationships also lived longer—and made more money.

As I note in my book The Leap, we don’t often see others as the solution to our problems—or as central to our future well-being. But our social bonds sustain us, and other research shows that people with deeper social ties live longer and are less likely to die of a heart attack or cancer. They’re also less likely to be anxious or depressed. They’re even less likely to catch a cold. In short, a lot of other research confirms the Bock study.

The bigger question, though is, something different: Why does this happen? Why would working with others give us any sort of support at all? There isn’t a simple explanation. Part of the reason, it seems, is that when we’re connected with others, we gain more information, which helps us solve problems more easily. By bonding with others, we also feel better about our group. And then there’s our brain, and it turns out that when we connect with others, our opiates can kick in and give us a bit of joy.

It’s easy to get carried away here, and we’re not built to place our faith in everyone. But the bottom line is that we feel supported by others, and at the same time, we want to feel like we are supporting others. There are, then, all sorts of reasons to increase social trust. As political scientist Eric Uslaner point out, social trust has a long list of benefits: It improves governmental efficacy, makes economic transactions easier, as well as strengthens community networks. But we also need to increase social trust for the very simply reason that it helps us succeed.

Portions of this blog item have appeared before in other work by Ulrich Boser, including his forthcoming book The Leap: The Science of Trust and Why It Matters.

 

Ulrich Boser is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of The Leap: The Science of Trust and Why it Matters and The Gardner Heist.

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