Trust is arguably the glue of a well-functioning civilization. A new study shows that violence undermines the ability to trust. While this has negative consequences for individuals, it could do even more significant harm on a society-wide scale.
In a paper in Nature Communications, psychologists at Yale and University of Oxford report that people exposed to violence do not learn who is more likely to do harm, but they do learn to mistrust people, including those who are trustworthy.
The authors evaluated 119 male prisoners in Connecticut who had varying degrees of exposure to violence. They were presented with a moral dilemma of two strangers who have to choose whether or not to inflict painful electric shock to a subject for money. The good stranger mostly refused to shock the subject, even when offered money, while the bad stranger maximized his profit.
The participants were asked to predict the behavior of the two strangers and judge how much they trusted each.
The researchers found that those who had been significantly exposed to violence trusted the good stranger less than those who had been exposed to less violence.
Doctoral student and first author Jennifer Siegel said: “In other words, exposure to violence disrupted the ability to place trust in the ‘right’ person. We also saw that this disruption led to a greater number of disciplinary infractions within the prison setting.”
While this research was conducted in an environment hyper-exposed to crime and violence, it has significant consequences if the study carries over to society at large even to a much lesser degree. More than 80% of youths in urban areas have witnessed violence. Inner-city areas particularly affected by violent crime show a high degree of delinquency and maladaptive behavior.
What is more, trust is fragile and easily destroyed. Consider, for instance, the draconian security measures that were taken and persist in airports after the 9/11 terrorist attack. The trauma of violence can do harm to the fabric of society.
A comparison between the murder rate and interpersonal trust in the world shows a significant correlation (see graph).
Most notably, the region with the highest degree of trust comprises the Scandinavian countries and Norway in particular. In America, many politicians, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), point to Scandinavia for inspiration for political reforms.
What he and others rarely consider is the high-trust culture of Nordic countries. There is evidence showing a strong correlation between trust and economic development. Mistrust can be one of the most destructive forces in society, depressing development.
What’s worse, once trust is gone, it may not return. In the West today we see a broad-scale erosion of confidence in institutions and the ruling elites. One of the driving forces of this negative trend may be mass immigration from low-trust societies.
Norway serves as an eerie example. The Nordic country has a long tradition of celebrating its Constitution Day on May 17 with parades of schoolchildren. Security has never been an issue. For the first time in history, the Norwegian police have announced that they will have armed guards all over the country in preparation for a terrorist attack, just as a precaution. Only a few years earlier, this would have been unthinkable.
That this can happen even in the country with the most highly developed trust culture in the world shows how easy it is to tear down the fabric that has taken generations to build up. The United States ignores this factor at its peril.
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