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On Trust & Society

On Trust & Society

We live in a world of increasing conflict, increasing polarization, and increasing distrust. Now, I wouldn’t argue that trust is good in and of itself. We also live in a world where conspiracy theories and misinformation are flourishing like never before. Healthy scepticism and the ability to verify what information is trustworthy are essential skills. Trustworthiness is key here. I would argue the trust is well placed when the object of our trust is itself trustworthy, so the skill here is being able to accurately identify what is trustworthy.

And this is where I think our culture of increasing polarization causes problems. An “us versus them” mentality creates biases that inhibit the development of trust, regardless of whether or not that trust is well placed. So distrust of others becomes more and more a default condition. This is a problem because, as research shows, if you have to choose between having too much trust or too little trust, it is better to trust too much.

Butler, Giuliano, and Guiso looked at the relationship between individual trust and economic outcomes. In situations where there is too much trust, there’s the potential to get burned. But when there is too little trust, individuals miss out on opportunities. These researchers found that the costs of the missed opportunities that come from distrust are significantly higher than what we stand to lose from trusting too much.[1]

Looking at this on a societal level, we ought to see a culture of distrust as a culture of missed opportunity. The problems that could come from breaking down barriers between different groups are smaller than the benefits we could experience from trusting each other more.

Matthew Pawlack is the Academic Network Leader Trust & Society – The Global Network on Trust, Luxembourg School of Religion & Society

[1] Jeffrey V. Butler, Paola Giuliano, and Luigi Guiso, “The Right Amount of Trust,” Journal of the European Economic Association 14, no. 5 (October 2016): 1155–80,


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