David DiSalvo


Which of Us Are the Most Trusting?

There's a surprising new way to predict who will trust you.

Posted Apr 29, 2014

Minerva Studio/Shutterstock
Source: Minerva Studio/Shutterstock

new study is giving the mistrustful something to consider: Intelligence strongly correlates with "generalized trust," or the belief that most people can be trusted—that, on average, your fellow man or woman is probably a good egg.

As it turns out, a fair amount of research has been conducted on the connection between intelligence and trust, and perhaps surprisingly, intelligence and trust appear to move in lockstep. In the latest study, researchers from the University of Oxford analyzed data from the General Social Survey, which assesses a representative swath of Americans about a range of attitudes, trust among them.

Participants were asked, “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people?”

Answers to that question were correlated against two measures of general intelligence. The first was a test of verbal ability—verbal ability, specifically vocabulary, being a consistently strong measure of intelligence. The second was a test of “question comprehension.”  The first is a more objective measure, since question comprehension relies on the interviewers to assess how well they think each person understood the questions. But both measures—vocabulary and comprehension—are well-established indicators of mental ability.

Researchers controlled for a range of variables, including social status, race, and parental education, since any one could conceivably throw off the outcome. Even with those variables accounted for, the results were clear: Individuals with the highest verbal ability were 34 percentage points more likely to trust others than participants with the lowest verbal ability scores. (Individuals with the strongest question comprehension were 11 percentage points more likely to trust others than individuals with the lowest comprehension.)

Not only do those results hold true regardless of socioeconomic status, marital status, race, age, or religion, they are also consistent throughout the four decades the General Social Survey has been in existence.

Why this correlation exists is open to debate. The researchers suggest that smarter people may be better at evaluating others’ trustworthiness, so they tend to select people for relationships who are less likely to betray them. Another possibility is that intelligent people are simply less likely to offer things that someone might have a strong incentive not to reciprocate.

It’s possible that smarter people tend to interact with people who are materially well off enough that they have less to gain from being untrustworthy—but this is unlikely since the study controlled for socioeconomic status and found the same result whether someone was rich or poor.

Then there's the possibility that intelligent people are less likely to buy into black-and-white absolutes, and more likely to realize that generally, people aren't purely "good" or "bad"—most of us fall well within the broad, blurry area between.

The study also tracked a few other trust-related outcomes and found—again quite consistently—that people with more generalized trust are more likely to report good or excellent health, and are more likely to describe themselves as “very happy.”

The study was published in the online journal PLoS ONE.

The author's latest book is Brain Changer: How Harnessing Your Brain’s Power To Adapt Can Change Your Life.