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Who Do You Trust?

In some states, research shows, almost no one fully trusts others.

But the problem might be even worse than many believe. When I recently looked at trust, state by state, measured through a survey by DDB Worldwide Communications Group, I found that in some states the percentage of people who reported complete levels of trust was effectively zero.

Political scientists have proposed all sorts of reasons for the recent collapse in social cohesion. Some, like Eric Uslaner , blame economic inequality. Others, like Robert Putnam , point the finger at generational change, sprawl, and changing technologies, among other culprits.

Whatever the exact cause—and it’s almost certainly a combination of causes—the bottom line is that we’ve lost a crucial thread of our social fabric. When I looked closely at the data, I found that in some states, like Tennessee, almost no one reported completely trusting strangers. Think about that: In some states, almost no one believes new people that they meet are fully trustworthy.

I’m not the first person to dig into such research. In the 1990s, Putnam mined the dataset pretty thoroughly for his seminal book Bowling Alone . More recently, Matthew Nagler used the data to show that stronger social capital influences car crashes . There are some throat-clearing caveats, though: For one, the DDB data dates back to 2008 and 2009. (My team combined data from those two years to produce more robust state-level estimates.) Also note that respondents answered on a scale , from not at all trusting to trusting completely ; for the data on Tennessee, for example, I'm referring to the (miniscule) percentage of people who indicated that they trusted others completely. In other writings, I’ve sliced the data somewhat differently.

(If you want to dig into some of the state-by-state data yourself—and you should—you can find some of the key indicators in this spreadsheet. It also includes the data on trust in government and trust in people that you meet for the first time.)

Looking forward, there are a few take-aways:

For individuals , it’s important to keep in mind that the people that you’re dealing with at work or at school are skeptical . They’re cynical. They want you to prove that you are, in fact, trustworthy, as Roderick Kramer has argued.

More important, for society , there’s the issue of social cohesion: What can we do to bring ourselves together? How we can we develop a greater sense of community?

There are no easy answers, but one thing is clear: We need to be more inclusive. We need to reach out more to people who are different than us, because, as experts like Putnam point out, it’s easy to trust people who share your background—another recent study, for example, found that we’re more likely to cooperate with people who share the same knowledge as us . What’s much harder is trusting people that are different from you, and in some areas—for example, Mississippi—my research on the DDB data suggests that only about 1 percent of people said that they totally trust someone from a different race.

I think journalist Robert Wright started to sketch out at least one promising solution when he argued that "the world’s biggest single problem is the failure of people or groups to look at things from the point of view of other people or groups—i.e. to put themselves in the shoes of 'the other.'" I provide a long list of policy solutions to improve our faith in others in this guide. As for individuals, we might take Wright's advice and realize that rebuilding our faith in others might start with doing more to understand the thinking of others.

Note: A huge thanks to Chris Callahan at DDB Worldwide Communications for her assistance. I’m also grateful to Stephen Goggin, who did the actual data analysis.

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