"Trust," political scientist Eric Uslaner has written, "is the chicken soup of social life." Over the last two decades, social scientists have repeatedly suggested that good things tend to happen in societies where people tend to trust each other -- they have stronger democracies, richer economies, better health, and they suffer less often from any number of social ills.
As the 2007 Pew Global Attitudes survey highlighted, the degree of trust in societies varies considerably around the world. Moreover, while the survey finds that social trust is not strongly correlated with our measures of democracy or economic performance, it is strongly correlated with views about two other important issues: crime and corruption. In countries where people generally trust one another, there are fewer worries about crime or corrupt political leaders.
The survey also found that in Eastern Europe -- a region where concerns about corruption are widespread -- the tumultuous changes that followed the fall of communism have taken their toll on social trust. The percentage of Russians, Ukrainians and Bulgarians who believe most people are trustworthy has declined steeply since the early 1990s.
Among the 47 countries included in the 2007 poll, China had the highest level of social trust: Almost eight-in-ten Chinese (79%) agreed with the statement "Most people in this society are trustworthy." Although no other Asian nation matches China's score, levels of trust are relatively high in the region, with majorities in Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, and India saying most people in their respective countries can be trusted.
Swedes (78%) came in a very close second to the Chinese on the social trust scale. The results from elsewhere in Western Europe indicated something of a north-south divide -- while most Swedes, Brits, and Germans said people in their countries are generally trustworthy, fewer than half in France, Spain, and Italy agreed. Meanwhile, Eastern Europeans tend to resemble their more southern neighbors on this issue. At 50%, Russians exhibited the highest level of trust among the Eastern European countries included in the study.
Trust also tends to run low in the Middle East, Latin America, and Africa, although in all three regions substantial variation is seen. For instance, while nearly six-in-ten Egyptians (58%) believed most people can be trusted, only 27% of Kuwaitis took this position. Similarly, in Latin America levels of trust ran from 51% in Venezuela down to 28% in Peru. Among African nations, Malians were roughly split between those who agree (49%) that most of their fellow citizens are trustworthy and those who disagree (51%), while Kenyans, with 25% agreeing and 75% disagreeing, were much more pessimistic in this poll, which was conducted several months before the outbreak of violence that followed last December's contested presidential election.
Since Harvard's Robert Putnam advanced his "bowling alone" thesis in the mid-1990s, numerous researchers have found evidence suggesting that America's social capital has declined over the last half century. However, as the Pew survey demonstrates, when it comes to social trust (one indicator of social capital), Americans still compare quite favorably with other publics -- 58% believe others in this society can be trusted. Only the Chinese, Swedish, Canadian, and British publics express greater levels of social trust.
Read the complete commentary Where Trust is High, Crime and Corruption are Low on the Pew Research Center Web site