Americans trust each other less, but still trust institutions

December 02, 1999

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Americans' trust in other people has declined steadily for at least 20 years, new research at Ohio State University suggests.

The study looked at data from a nationwide survey that asked several questions about trust, such as whether respondents thought people usually "would try to take advantage of you if they got a chance."

Results showed that trust in individuals declined about 10 percent between 1975 and 1994, a rate of about one-half percent each year.

However, there was some good news in the study: generalized trust in institutions such as government and religion did not decline over the same period and people maintained their involvement in clubs and organizations, and maintained associations with neighbors and friends.

Overall, the results show that the sense of community in the United States -- what sociologists call social capital -- has declined in the United States, but not alarmingly, said Pamela Paxton, author of the study and assistant professor of sociology at Ohio State.

"I don't think there's a crisis," she said. "People still talk to their neighbors, they still participate in associations and they generally trust the major institutions of society. But the decline in personal trust is troubling."

The study was published in a recent issue of the American Journal of Sociology.

Paxton conducted the study because of the continuing debate about whether social capital is in decline in the United States. In 1995, researcher Robert Putnam received national attention for a study called Bowling Alone that cited decreasing voter turnout and declining membership in groups such as bowling leagues as evidence of a general civic decline. Many observers were concerned because strong social capital is vital to the health of the nation through its impact on everything from political participation to neighborhood safety.

Paxton said her study aimed to do a more rigorous analysis of social capital than had been done previously. One key was that she looked at not just one, but several different indicators of social capital. She also chose indicators that were well-grounded in the theory of social capital.

She used data from the General Social Survey, a nationwide survey of adults that was conducted between 1975 and 1994. She focused on questions in the survey that measured two components of social capital: trust and associations.

The study looked at both trust in individuals and trust in institutions. To measure trust in individuals, Paxton examined the answers to questions such as "Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can't be too careful in dealing with people?" This part of the survey showed the most serious signs of decline.

She also examined how much trust people said they had in three major societal institutions: organized religion, the education system, and the federal government.

At first glance, the results suggested there was a decline in trust in these institutions from 1975 and 1994. However, this decline disappeared once the impact of short-term scandals are taken into account. For example, she found that trust in organized religion dropped significantly in 1988 -- the year after a high-profile scandal involving television evangelist Jim Bakker and other related religious scandals. However, trust in organized religion rebounded in subsequent years.

"Scandals may hurt the reputation of institutions for a year or two, but I found that levels of trust come back from these problems," Paxton said. "Once you control for these scandals, Americans' trust in major institutions doesn't appear to decline."

Another aspect of social capital that Paxton examined was the level of associations people had with others. She examined how often respondents reported spending an evening with a friend or a neighbor, and how many memberships they had in voluntary organizations. She found no evidence of decline in these variables during the time studied.

Taken together, these results "give a mixed review" of the status of community in the United States, according to Paxton.

"It appears that we don't have to worry about a decline in associations or a general decline of trust in institutions. But the strong, consistent decline in trust in individuals could be detrimental to society."

She said the recent rise in gated communities and use of private security guards may be one symptom of a growing lack of trust in the country. This is concerning because other studies have shown, for example, that high levels of trust are linked to reduced violence in neighborhoods.

"Our ideas of what makes a 'good' society often revolve around the issues of social capital," Paxton said. "A general lack of trust can be very damaging."
Contact: Pamela Paxton, 614-688-8266;
Written by Jeff Grabmeier, 614-292-8457;

Ohio State University

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