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How emancipation contributes to trust in strangers

November 20, 2017

In many countries, human empowerment - including freedom of expression and action - tends to increase people's generalised trust in other people, particularly strangers. However, such an increase is usually gradual, reaching its peak in affluent, modernised democracies. In contrast, in countries with below-average levels of development, people, especially educated ones, often demonstrate a lack of trust in strangers, according to researchers of the Higher School of Economics.

It is generally accepted that the more prosperous a country, the higher the level of generalised trust among its population. This is largely due to emancipation, i.e. human empowerment in various spheres, such as civil rights, material freedom, freedom of expression, and others. These are the findings made by Christian Welzel, Chief Research Fellow of the HSE Laboratory for Comparative Social Research (LCSR), and Jan Delhey, Professor at the University of Magdeburg. However, the researchers' previous studies of factors contributing to generalised trust gave contradictory results for different countries.

Generalised trust, considered as a key component of social capital, has been a major research focus in the last three decades. There is consensus among researchers that trust in strangers - i. e. people seen for the first time - is the main indicator of generalised trust. It is a type of out-group trust, alongside trust in people of a different religion or ethnicity. According to the World Values Survey (WVS) waves 5 and 6, this type of trust, compared to other types, is the lowest in most countries.

Anna Almakaeva, Christian Welzel and Eduard Ponarin, researchers with the HSE LCSR, examined the relationship between trust and emancipation, using data from WVS waves 5 and 6 for 63 countries.

The WVS determines the level of generalised trust based on the answer to the question, 'Do you trust people you meet for the first time?' To measure the level of human emancipation, an index developed by Christian Welzel was used, comprising three dimensions of emancipation: existential, characterised by the GDP at purchasing power parity; psychological, characterised by the emancipative values such as equality, freedom, autonomy and self-expression; and institutional, measured by the civil rights index.

Their findings confirm that generalised trust and human empowerment are positively related, but this relationship is nonlinear. Trust does not arise immediately with emancipation, but begins to grow after a certain level of emancipation is attained. Therefore, people tend to trust strangers only in highly developed and modernised countries, such as Sweden, Norway, Finland and Canada.

Human empowerment contributes to higher levels of subjective wellbeing, civic participation, emancipative values, ethnic tolerance, and education. These factors, according to the authors, are significant contributors to trust in highly emancipated countries. However, the study revealed a curious relationship between trust and education.

In countries with low levels of emancipation, such as Yemen, education can have an opposite effect, i.e. the lower a person's education, the more they tend towards generalised trust, while highly educated people tend to have lower trust in those who are not in their close circle. According to the authors, this phenomenon can be partly explained by Japanese researcher Toshio Yamagishi's idea that trust is a form of social intelligence. Where living standards are low and security is not guaranteed, education enhances people's ability to see potential problems in their social environment.

There is an idea that civic participation and generalised trust are parts of the same 'social syndrome'. However, this may also be true only of highly developed countries.

The authors conclude that societies with medium and high levels of human empowerment tend to develop a specific form of generalised trust as a civic virtue and a moral value.

National Research University Higher School of Economics

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