Yesterday’s blog proposed that the most useful approach to understanding the evolution of large-scale complex societies is to view them through the lens of Cultural Evolution. To make this discussion more concrete, let’s look at a particular cultural trait: social trust (more specifically, ‘generalized trust’).
Trust is highly important for explaining the ability of people, teams, and whole societies to cooperate. Social trust creates mutual bonds between citizens that make them willing to enter into potentially profitable but risky transactions and to participate in collective enterprises that create public goods (more on this in Francis Fukuyama’s Trust). Social scientists, beginning with Alexis de Tocqueville, have known that generalized trust is a critical ingredient for collective action, economic growth, and effective governance (in addition to the already mentioned Fukuyama book, a useful compendium is by Diego Gambetta, Trust: Making and Breaking Cooperative Relations).
Thanks to such organizations as the General Social Survey in the USA and the European Social Survey, we have a lot of quantitative data on how social trust varies within societies, between societies, and how it changes over time.
The standard question that these surveys ask is, “Generally speaking, do you believe that most people can be trusted or can’t you be too careful in dealing with people?” Respondents are then offered four versions of the answer:
- always trusted
- usually trusted
- usually not trusted
- always not trusted
Note that the spectrum of potential responses is, rather arbitrarily, split into four discrete answers, although it is clear that the degree of belief that most people can be trusted grades smoothly from a complete agreement to a complete rejection of this statement. Relevant to the previous blog, generalized trust doesn’t seem to be a meme, at least not as usually understood by the proponents of Memetics.
But what if it’s not even a cultural trait (as I defined them in the previous blog)? The key question is whether this attitude is socially transmitted, or individually learned.
Clearly, our assessment of whether any specific individual known to us should be trusted, or not, will be affected by our previous interactions with him. Theorists of trust, like Eric Uslaner, refer to this as ‘particularized’ or ‘strategic trust.’
But what about trusting a stranger, someone with whom we have no history of interactions? It turns out that people, even within the same population group, vary quite significantly in their attitudes towards how much strangers should be trusted. And specific encounters (with either a trustworthy or a duplicitous person) have a small effect—these attitudes are characterized by a great degree of stability. At least, this what Uslaner argues in The Moral Foundations of Trust. He makes a distinction between particularized or strategic trust and generalized or ‘moralistic’ trust. In his view, generalized trust is really about whether we should trust people (rather than whether people are in general trustworthy). It’s more a moralistic attitude, rather than an assessment of whether people are generally trustworthy, or not.
Periodic social surveys indicate that generalized trust behaves just as we would expect a cultural trait to behave. National-level studies show that each surveyed population is characterized by a mixture of people holding different beliefs about whether others can be trusted. The relative proportions of different beliefs are quite stable in time—they change, but slowly. In other words, this cultural trait evolves (remember that my definition of cultural evolution is based on the frequencies of cultural traits changing with time).
But the critical question is, how is this attitude transmitted? Uslaner also presents data showing that the most important influence predicting a person’s stance on generalized trust is the attitude of their parents. In other words, if he is correct, we typically learn generalized trust (or distrust) from the previous generation, and that makes it a cultural trait.
Somewhere I read a wonderful story illustrating how trust (or distrust) is transmitted. It went something like this. A father tells his son, who is sitting on a tall fence: “Jump down, and I will catch you!” The son is dubious, but the father says, “Don’t you trust me?” Finally the son jumps, at which point the father steps aside and lets him take a painful fall. “Remember, son, you should not trust anybody.”
I thought I read this story in Edward Banfield’s book The Moral Basis of a Backward Society, but I have been unable to locate it in the copy of the book that I have. Can anybody provide me with the source for it??