Is Social Trust Valid Anymore?
Stephen J. Dubner
Recently I came across a podcast episode about social trust varying in different countries done by Freakonomics Radio called “Trust Me”. Although a very informative and intriguing episode, it left me with a lot of unanswered questions. The episode was recorded in 2016, during the time of the U.S. presidential election, and was meant to target the low social unity as a result of that election. However, it was reuploaded right at the end of last year, and given the current state of the pandemic-stricken world, a lot of the points they made about fluctuating levels of social trust became more apparent.
I never realized how big an impact social trust would have on a society, or even country as a whole. Social trust obviously impacts the community’s personal relations and participation, but it also affects the economic growth, people’s health, and tax payments made. Considering I chose to study business, the economic growth part caught my attention. According to David Halpern, a member of the British Government’s Behavioral Insights Team, found that a society with low trust levels has a high failure rate for new businesses because people will revert to their comfort zone and stick to familiar businesses and only hire familiar people, even if they are not cut out for the job.
This was alarming to me. I had never considered the extensive impacts that a society with low trust could create. The even more concerning part was how in the United States, my home, only 30-40% of people said that others can be trusted. Out of just under 330 million people, only 30% can be trusted? But when I started to think about it, this didn’t even come as a shock to me. Many people in the United States live for themselves, have very close circles of people, and are always afraid of branching out of their comfort zone. This is seen very often in suburban, or neighborhood heavy areas, because everything is at reach within the community. There is no need to leave the small town or city, or look for new connections elsewhere. At some point, there is not even a need for attending club or church meetings because due to technology, leaving your house has not become as necessary either.
As a young adult, I find it hard not to branch out and want to meet new people. One of my motivations for moving across the ocean to Finland was the opportunity to meet new people, become independent, step out of my comfort zone I had built in the US. Later in the episode, Halpern then noted that people who attended university are more likely to trust other people because of their experiences of moving alone to a new environment and living amongst hundreds of other young adults in the same situation. This was reassuring to me, because I started to think maybe I was the only one who felt like they could trust people, even some strangers.
This is where my unanswered question enters the stage. Since this episode was recorded 4 years ago, they had no way of knowing that a detrimental global pandemic would occur. As I mentioned earlier, many people spend a lot more time on technology, and leave their homes much less often than previously, which decreases social involvement, and therefore social trust. Now during the coronavirus pandemic, what has happened to the social trust numbers? No governments or organizations can encourage social gatherings or ways of bonding diverse groups of people because of the risk of spreading the virus. This automatically means that time spent on technology has exponentially grown, as even most schools have started to use platforms like Zoom to connect with students. Levels of social trust already started to decrease when the television was introduced dozens of years ago, but now without the option of spending time with people, I can only imagine that the social trust percentages have dropped even more.
As a member of society, who has spent way more time behind a screen than ever before in my life, I can definitely say that my levels of trust in society have dropped. Without the ability to interact with people in my life face to face, have fun, travel home, or even attend school normally, I have noticed major decrease in my motivation and social engagement. At this point of the pandemic, I don’t even bother trying to meet new people because I know I will not be able to see them. I also came to the realization that if I am not motivated to complete schoolwork, then I am not motivated for other parts of my life like exercise or daily chores. Sometimes I wonder how life after the pandemic might look like. Will society be even tighter knit than it was before because everyone misses human interaction, or will it be even more divided over the fear of another virus taking over the population. Coronavirus has taken a toll mentally and physically on all parts of the world, and it seems impossible for social trust numbers to increase during the time of the pandemic. So that leaves my question for the world, what next? What happens after the pandemic?