In Which Countries Trust Is Declining And Where It Is Increasing? by Our World In Data

Trust is a fundamental element of social capital – a key contributor to sustaining well-being outcomes, including economic development. In this entry we discuss available data on trust, as measured by attitudinal survey questions; that is, estimates from surveys asking about trusting attitudes.

Global comparisons of trust attitudes around the world today suggest very large time-persistent cross-country heterogeneity. In one extreme, in countries such as Norway, Sweden and Finland, more than 60% of respondents in the World Value Survey think that people can be trusted. And in the other extreme, in countries such as Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador and Peru, less than 10% think that this is the case.

Data from European countries shows that average trust in the police tends to be higher than trust in the political and the legal systems. And trust in the political system is particularly low – in fact much lower than interpersonal trust for all countries except Switzerland. On the other hand, trust in the police is notably high, and in the majority of European countries people trust the police more than they trust each other.

Long-run data from the US, where the General Social Survey (GSS) has been gathering information about trust attitudes since 1972, suggests that people trust each other less today than 40 years ago. This decline in interpersonal trust in the US has been coupled with a long-run reduction in public trust in government – according to estimates compiled by the Pew Research Center since 1958, today trust in the government in the US is at historically low levels.

Interpersonal trust attitudes correlate strongly with religious affiliation and upbringing. Some studies have shown that this strong positive relationship remains after controlling for several survey-respondent characteristics.1 This, in turn, has led researchers to use religion as a proxy for trust, in order to estimate the extent to which economic outcomes depend on trust attitudes. Estimates from these and other studies using an instrumental-variable approach, suggest that trust has a causal impact on economic outcomes.2 This suggests that the remarkable cross-country heterogeneity in trust that we observe today, can explain a significant part of the historical differences in cross-country income levels.

Measures of trust from attitudinal survey questions remain the most common source of data on trust. Yet academic studies have shown that these measures of trust are generally weak predictors of actual trusting behaviour. Interestingly, however, questions about trusting attitudes do seem to predict trustworthiness. In other words, people who say they trust other people tend to be trustworthy themselves.3

Empirical View

Cross-country surveys

How do countries around the world compare in terms of interpersonal trust?

The World Value Survey allows cross-country comparisons of self-reported trust attitudes. The following visualization shows estimates of the share of survey respondents agreeing with the statement “most people can be trusted”.4 Countries can be added by clicking on the option at the top of the chart.

As it can be seen, there are very large differences in levels, and trends tend to be fairly stable. For example, in China the share of people reporting to trust others is much higher than in Brazil – and this have been true across several surveys over the last couple of decades.

Using the same data discussed above, the following map shows a global picture of cross-country differences in trust levels. Here, estimates correspond to the latest available data from the World Value Survey. Once again, heterogeneity stands out. In one extreme, in countries such as Norway, Sweden and Finland, more than 60% of respondents think that people can be trusted. And in the other extreme, in countries such as Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador and Peru, less than 10% think that this is the case. Notice that even in some relatively homogeneous regions, such as Western Europe, there are some marked differences: there is a twofold difference between France and neighbouring Germany.

How large are cross-country differences in estimates of interpersonal trust in Europe?

The results from the World Value Survey discussed above show that there are very large, time-persistent cross-country differences in the share of people who report trusting others, even within European countries. But are these cross-country differences similarly large if we look at average ratings of trust in a scale that allows for differences in intensity? The following visualization shows the average rating of trust in others across European countries, using data from Eurostat. In this case, respondents answer to the question “would you say that most people can be trusted?” using an 11-point scale, ranging from 0 to 10. As it can be seen, results are consistent – countries with high interpersonal trust in the World Value Survey also have high trust ratings in the Eurostat survey. Yet heterogeneity on the more granular scale used by Eurostat is somewhat smaller.

How much do people in developed countries trust public institutions?

The OECD, using Eurostat data, provides estimates of trust in public institutions that are comparable to estimates of ‘trust in others’ (i.e. interpersonal trust). The following visualization, taken from the OECD report How’s life? (2015) , shows average ratings of trust in (i) the political system, (ii) the police, and (iii) the legal system. These figures can be directly compared to those on interpersonal trust discussed in the visualization above. In both cases figures rely on Eurostat data from the same survey, so respondents here also rate trust in institutions using an 11-point scale, ranging from 0 to 10. As it can be seen, average trust in the police tends to be higher than trust in the political and the legal systems. And trust in the political system is particularly low – in fact much lower than interpersonal trust for all countries except Switzerland

The data suggests a broad correlation between trust in others, and trust in the different public institutions. Specifically, northern Europe (and Switzerland) report higher levels of trust, while southern and eastern Europe (and France) report lower levels across the board.

Mean trust in public institutions, European countries, 2013 – Figure 3.14 in the OECD report How’s life? (2015) 5

Trust, Interpersonal Trust

People in most European countries trust the police more than they trust each other

We mentioned above that the police is trusted more than other public institutions in most European countries. But do people in these countries trust the police more than they trust each other? This question is relevant, because trust in the police can become, in certain situations, an important substitute for interpersonal trust. The following visualization plots Eurostat figures for trust in the police (y-axis) and trust in others (x-axis). The size of each dot represents national income (PPP-adjusted GDP per capita). We can see that there is a clear positive correlation; and in the majority of countries people report the same or higher trust in the police than trust in others. The clear exceptions are Greece, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, and Slovenia – these are

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