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The Decline of Trust

Why are we losing confidence in each other?

PD Pics, used with permission.
Source: PD Pics, used with permission.

We live in a world of social competition and in a world in which trust is eroding. Trust in government has declined from 73% in 1958 to 24 % in 2014 according to the Pew Research Center. And only 40% of people trust the media a “good deal or fair amount” according to a 2015 Gallup Poll. This is an all-time low. Trust in each other has been in steady decline since the 1970s, 48.1% in 1972 to 31.9% in 2014 (NORC, University of Chicago). And, according to Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone successive generations are becoming less trusting (Putnam 2000). Those born before 1945 are more trusting than those born before 1960 who are more trusting than those born after 1960—and these “cohort differences” remain stable even over a twenty -year period. So, it’s not simply your age, it’s the year you were born—the “cohort effect”. With each succeeding generation we are becoming less trustful.

We are becoming less trustful of government, business, media, and each other. It’s interesting to note that “trust” is related to a number of other factors. For example, people in smaller communities are more trusting than people who live in larger cities. Married and never married people are equally trusting of others, but they are more trusting than people who are divorced or recently separated. Apparently the trauma of divorce or separation affects general levels of trust of other people. People who attend church more frequently are more trusting than people who do not attend church, Whites are more trusting than Black people, wealthier people are more trusting than poorer people, and happier people are more trusting than unhappy people (Clark, Clark & Monzin, 2013). Interestingly, according to a GSS survey the belief that extramarital sexual affairs are wrong has increased since 1973. So, as distrust has increased, the demand for fidelity has also increased. The free-wheeling 1960s and 1970s may have led to more sexual “freedom”, but it eventually led to more distrust which led to a greater demand for fidelity.

And cheating in school has been on the rise for the past twenty years. In the 1940s about 20% of high school students admitted that they cheated, but in 2015 between 75% to 98% of college students admitted that they cheated in high school. The stigma for academic cheating has declined (“It’s not so bad”) and students are reluctant to report that others cheat. A student at an elite college that had an honor system claimed that it wasn’t fair that other students cheated on exams because they had copies of previous exams (which was not allowed). She said, “It’s not fair that I got a lower grade. I don’t cheat like these other kids”. But she was reluctant to report anyone. She thought that if she honored the honor code and reported people—then no one would trust her again. In fact, some high school and college students believe that you are unrealistic if you don’t cheat. “If everyone else is cheating, why should I be the sucker who doesn’t”, one high school student told me. The decline of honesty in school performance may be related to the normalization of cheating—including having parents “help” with homework by actually writing the essays and the applications to college. Why has cheating increased? There are a number of factors that contribute to this—the increased competition for grades, the availability of 0n-line resources for cheating, the decrease in penalties for cheating, and the normalization of cheating (McCabe. Butterfield, Trevino, 2012). Cheating is rampant. And some people view it as desirable.

While academic cheating has increased and trust in all social areas has decreased, it is no wonder that jealousy—a form of distrust—has also increased. There seems to be a growing list of opportunities to trigger these feelings of jealousy in our personal relationships. You may be scanning your partner’s Facebook Page, checking their text messages, following them on other social media, while you also wonder if they are using hook-up Apps that allow them a quick fix, an “innocent flirtation”, or a sexual escapade, while you ruminate about how everything could explode in your face if it all came to pass. You wonder, “Who is this woman on Facebook that my partner is so interested in?” or “Why haven’t I heard of this person before”? What are they not telling me? We are afraid of what we don’t know. And we assume that what we don’t know will hurt us.

While this is happening we realize that commitment seems elusive. For example, the age of first marriage has increased for women from age 21 to 27 between 1950 and 2014 and for men from age 24 to 29 during the same period. As marriage is delayed, there may be less commitment that people feel obligated to in their relationships. Moreover, an increasing number of people may never marry. In a 2010 Pew Research Poll, 39 % of people claimed that marriage was obsolete. And among those who do decide to get married there is an increasing desire for an “insurance policy” that will make the exit from the marriage easier to handle. Many couples believe that prenuptial contracts are necessary but it is usually only one of the partners who really wants it. They are planning their exit even before they have entered into the marriage. In a recent survey of 1,600 members of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, 63 % of respondents claimed that there was an increase in the demand for prenuptial contracts in the past three years (Young, 2015).

And you don’t have to be paranoid to realize that it is not unique to find out that your partner has cheated on you. The scandal that unfolded with Ashley Madison—the on- line dating site for married people looking for affairs—revealed that there were 30 million accounts with Ashley Madison. In an on-line survey of 70,000 adults conducted by MSNBC 28 % of men and 18% of women admitted to having cheated on their partner (Weaver, 2007). And those are the people who are “admitting” to it.

It’s not as if there isn’t enough competition for the jealous person to worry about without adding in the “threat” of on-line pornography. Here are some facts to make your hair stand on end—if you still have any hair. The use of pornography at some time is almost universal--- both men and women sometimes access pornography. But some people are more likely to use pornography. Research shows that 40 million Americans regularly visit porn sites- 70 % of men and 30% of women view pornography weekly, 35% of all internet downloads are related to pornography, Porn is a 97 Billion dollar business worldwide, and 25% of all search engine queries are related to pornography, or about 68 million search queries a day.

And the use of pornography does not remain a private experience. According to Webroot, the use of pornography is associated with increased marital and family problems, infidelity and divorce. Here are the chilling numbers from a review by Webroot:

According to the National Coalition for the Protection of Children & Families, 2010, 47% of families in the United States reported that pornography is a problem in their home.
Pornography use increases the marital infidelity rate by more than 300%
40 percent of “sex addicts” lose their spouses, 58 percent suffer considerable financial losses, and about a third lose their jobs
68% of divorce cases involve one party meeting a new paramour over the internet while 56% involve one party having an “obsessive interest” in pornographic websites

The issue of trust is not limited to the current Presidential contest. It represents the collapse of social capital and of our willingness to rely on what we are told and the growing tendency to define deviance downward. As we become more cynical or pessimistic we end up feeling that we are living in a Hobbesian world of dog-eat-dog, of unfettered competition, and the decline of a the legitimacy of our institutions and relationships.

More from Robert L. Leahy Ph.D.
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