A new Associated Press/GfK found that only one-third of Americans say most people can be trusted. And I thought squirrels were paranoid. (More)

Of course, it’s not paranoia if they’re really out to get you, and for squirrels that’s often true. A lot of animals have the misguided notion that we’re food. That’s why we hop-and-stop when we’re out in the open. We can leap up to six feet in a single bound and even farther between tree branches, while freezing in place confuses animals that hunt by movement and gives us time to look for the best escape routes. We also sit up and lift our food to our mouths while we eat, so we can look around, just in case something’s watching and thinks “Now that you mention it, I’m hungry too….”

But life isn’t like that for most Americans, so I’m kind of surprised that only one-third of you trust each other:

Americans don’t trust each other anymore.

We’re not talking about the loss of faith in big institutions such as the government, the church or Wall Street, which fluctuates with events. For four decades, a gut-level ingredient of democracy – trust in the other fellow – has been quietly draining away.

These days, only one-third of Americans say most people can be trusted. Half felt that way in 1972, when the General Social Survey first asked the question.

Forty years later, a record high of nearly two-thirds say “you can’t be too careful” in dealing with people.

That’s a feeling that has no grounding in reality for most Americans. Take driving, for example. Squirrels don’t drive but I watch you humans do it, and most of you drive sensibly most of the time. I know defensive driving schools teach you to assume other drivers will make mistakes, but you couldn’t drive at all if you assume that most other drivers are just waiting for a chance to hit you.

In fact, our entire economy is based on trust. The Federal Reserve has only $1 in actual currency for every $40 in economic activity. The other $39 exists in bank records and other pledges of mutual trust. When that trust really breaks down, we have bank runs and other financial catastrophes. But the vast majority of the time, you go into a store and buy stuff and swipe your ATM card and computers move digits from Here to There.

So if Americans routinely act as if you trust each other, why do two-thirds say you don’t? The Associated Press’ Connie Cass explains:

There’s no single explanation for Americans’ loss of trust.

The best-known analysis comes from Bowling Alone author Robert Putnam’s nearly two decades of studying the United States’ declining “social capital,” including trust.

Putnam says Americans have abandoned their bowling leagues and Elks lodges to stay home and watch TV. Less socializing and fewer community meetings make people less trustful than the “long civic generation” that came of age during the Depression and World War II.

But Americans are more connected than ever, as we saw last summer in Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman’s Networked. Organized groups like bowling leagues may be fading, but Americans are increasingly talking, texting, tweeting, and otherwise sharing with friends almost constantly. A study last October found that 60% of employees used social media several times a day at work. The idea that the internet has left us alone and isolated is simply false.

So what else might explain the decline in trust. Cass also interviewed political science professor Eric Uslander, whose 2003 paper cited economic inequality as a key factor:

Trust has declined as the gap between the nation’s rich and poor gapes ever wider, Uslaner says, and more and more Americans feel shut out. They’ve lost their sense of a shared fate. Tellingly, trust rises with wealth.

“People who believe the world is a good place and it’s going to get better and you can help make it better, they will be trusting,” Uslaner said. “If you believe it’s dark and driven by outside forces you can’t control, you will be a mistruster.”

The Equality Trust group in Britain found a worldwide pattern linking economic inequality and loss of community trust:

The decline of trust in the AP/GfK poll has been mostly among white Americans:

African-Americans consistently have expressed far less faith in “most people” than the white majority does. Racism, discrimination and a high rate of poverty destroy trust.

Nearly 8 in 10 African-Americans, in the 2012 survey conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago with principal funding from the National Science Foundation, felt that “you can’t be too careful.” That figure has held remarkably steady across the 25 GSS surveys since 1972.

I get that. Data show racial minorities face extra challenges in finding jobs, not to mention treatment by police. On the other hand, black and Hispanics are more optimistic than whites about their futures, and black voters turned out in higher percentages than whites in 2008 and 2012.

Which brings me back to Americans saying they don’t trust each other, but most people generally acting as if they do each other. So I have a theory. When it comes to polls on trust, you hop to the conclusion that you can’t be too careful, but if you’d stop to think about the question you’d realize you trust each other more than you think.

So hop less and stop more. I’d say to be more squirrely, but apparently some of you think that means dishonest. Talk about paranoid….

Good day and good nuts