How did you get to be such a trusting soul?

What, you don’t consider yourself the trusting type? You’re suspicious of everyone? Well, maybe, in some cases. But I doubt it. Not compared to other folks on the spectrum of politics and trust.

Odds are you have a basic, default attitude of trust in other people. Why do I say that? Because you’re here. Because you’re reading BPI or Daily Kos, probably even logged in as registered participant. Because you’re probably not reading this while waving a sign proclaiming that you want your country back from people who aren’t exactly like you.

Book notes: The Moral Foundations of Trust, by Eric M. Uslaner

Because we’re the sort of people who participate at this progressive political site, we probably have a more generalized attitude of trust than a typical tea party slogan shouter. Tea party participants exhibit what Professor Eric Uslaner calls “particularized trust”, a trust that requires everyone to be just like us. Having a more inclusive worldview correlates strongly with a more generalized trust, the sort of trust we can extend to people who differ from us. More importantly, generalized trust also extends to trust in the ability of government to be useful.

Eric Uslaner works as a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland. In the 1990s he examined rising incivility among members of Congress, reported in an earlier book, The Decline of Comity in Congress (1993). His book, The Moral Foundations of Trust, extends his research about the role of trust in forming and maintaining functional government. Although aimed at an audience of social science scholars who want to see lots of data and statistics, it’s possible to extract a few intriguing notions from the text even while skimming.

Regular readers of Morning Feature may note the title’s similarity to Jonathan Haidt’s work on moral foundations. That turns out to be a coincidence. Uslaner’s book was published years before Haidt’s research results, and their concepts of moral foundations differ. Uslaner’s apparent goal is to distinguish “moralistic trust” from “strategic trust”. Strategic trust is knowledge-based or knowledge-derived, and often temporary. Strategic trust results from a decision to trust someone to complete a transaction or to perform a service. Selecting a plumber from those reviewed at Angie’s List would be an example. Strategic trust draws from the same mental model as rational actors in economics. Apparently strategic trust received more attention from Uslaner’s social science peers during the 1990s, but he wanted to explore how trust relates to ethics, attitudes, and values, some components of “moralistic trust”.

After distinguishing moral trust from strategic trust, Uslaner lays out his other key distinction: “particularized trust” compared to “generalized trust”:

“Particularized trusters only rely upon people they are sure share their own values. Generalized trusters presume that most people they meet share their values; particularized trusters demand evidence that people outside their circles (or identity groups) share their beliefs.”

Flag pin, anybody?

Or more recently: Show us your papers!
(We demand evidence that you share our beliefs.)

This isn’t necessarily a new model, of course. It relates to in-group and out-group behaviors long ago described by psychologists. Uslaner even uses the terms in-group and out-group in his descriptions. What struck me about particular trust is how well it describes the vehement and venomous in-group and out-group dynamics exhibited by tea partiers and the Arizona state legislature. In practice, particularized trust looks like paranoia strong suspicion of anyone who hasn’t yet proven they’re just like me (Okay, and you, too. But where’s your flag pin?)

Here are a few other noteworthy tidbits. Items not quoted are my paraphrases.

  • Generalized trust declines as income inequality increases. Trust in other people, our fellow citizens, and trust in government have disappeared along with income.
  • “Young people with friends of different race are less likely to be particularized trusters.
    (Again, this correlates with other psychology data, the “exposure effect“.)
  • “Highly educated people (especially with college education) more likely to be generalized trusters, less likely to be particularized trusters.”
  • “Optimists are more likely to be generalized trusters, less likely to be particularlized trusters.”
  • Sense of control is a predictor: “People who think that they can control their lives are more likely to be generalized trusters and less likely to be particularized trusters.”

Do those data points begin to describe worldviews we recognize? I think so. Although the author emphasizes the politically neutral label, “optimist”, I found myself classifying various descriptions as liberal, conservative, liberal, conservative, liberal, etc. The book predates the current tea party phenomenon, and tea partier behavior can be explained several different ways, of course. But the concept of particularized trust seemed like a perspective on tea party politics that might be timely and valuable to share.

In the last chapters of Moral Foundations of Trust, Uslaner describes ways that interpersonal trust can and apparently do improve the operation of government. That appears to be the basis of his current research about the effects of corruption in government.

Uslaner’s Moral Foundations of Trust is nearly ten years old. The survey data available to him, mostly from the 1980s and 1990s, also limited the conclusions he could draw. Since then other authors, such as Lakoff, Altameyer, and Haidt, have published more up-to-date and more accessible writing (for non-specialists) on morality, social psychology, and politics. But the book seems useful as a data-dense social science reference.

I found Uslaner’s book on the social psychology shelf at my library, where I was looking for information about the ways we interpret signals to assess trust or threat. This book didn’t answer any of those questions, so I’ll keep looking.

Two closing thoughts, one from Uslaner and one from some other guy:

“People who trust others don’t see differences in values as a call to arms. They are tolerant of people unlike themselves. They see the potential of mutual gains by working together…. Without generalized trust, you need to build strategic trust time and time again.”

Remember the policy called, “Trust, but verify”? Is that really trust? It seems to me a very particular kind of trust.

I trust that you’ve read scrolled this far. Thanks for your kind attention. And thanks for your generalized trust that at least some of our fellow humans can re-establish healthy, mature democracy.

Cheers, and good morning, y’all