First we didn't trust government, now we don't trust each other

Posted at 10:56 AM, Nov 13, 2014

“Social capital” is a wonderful concept that became fashionable with Robert Putnam’s 2000 bestseller, “Bowling Alone.” Social capital is just what it sounds like: the reservoir of benefits and goodwill we get from our communities and social lives. Putnam believed there was a serious decline in social capital during the last part of the 20th century. The main culprit was a near disappearance of civic organizations such as PTAs, Rotary Clubs and VFWs.  Instead of bowling in leagues, we started bowling alone.

Putnam’s theory was controversial, but one part of it was indisputable: America’s trust and confidence in government steadily eroded beginning in the 1970s.  Trust is the essential balm of social capital.

Putnam first used the “bowling alone” metaphor in a 1995 scholarly article.  Last month the Association for Psychological Science published an article with a far more prosaic title but perhaps equal potential to cause a stir, “Declines in Trust in Others and Confidence in Institutions Among American Adults and Late Adolescents, 1972–2012” by Jean Twenge, W. Keith Campbell and Nathan Carter.

The article’s important finding is that the decline of trust in government has been accompanied by a decline in trust in each other.

Our trust in the other institutions of public life has also corroded. “Between 1972 and 2012, Americans became significantly less trusting of each other and less confident and trusting in large institutions, such as the news media, business, religious organizations, the medical establishment, Congress, and the presidency, the article states,” the article says.  “Levels of trust and confidence, key indicators of social capital, reached all-time or near-all-time lows in 2012 …”

The findings are based on academically rigorous surveys of adults and high school seniors that are done year after year. 

The decline of trust is fairly even throughout society. Baby boomers trust institutions the least. Our trust in each other diminishes as economic inequality increases.

Trust in other people hit its lowest point in 2012. “For example, in 1972–1974, 46% of adult Americans agreed that ‘most people can be trusted.’ By the 2010 to 2012 surveys, this sunk to 33% (a 28% decrease).” The same was true for 12th graders. In 1976-1978, 32% of seniors said, “most people can be trusted.” That shriveled to 18% in 2010-2012, a decrease of 44 percent.

Trust in institutions followed the same pattern. “Social capital was lower in recent years than during the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s; the Iran hostage crisis and ‘national malaise’ of the late 1970s and early 1980s; the height of the crime wave in the early 1990s; the Clinton impeachment of the late 1990s; the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks; and the financial crisis and recession of the late 2000s,” the article says.  Why so low now? There’s no easy explanation.

One of the authors, Jean Twenge, who also wrote “Generation Me,” told me she suspects the decline of social capital has mirrored the growth of “cultural individualism.” Less tied to traditional organization and beliefs, we “are focusing on ourselves more and trusting ourselves more.”

And trusting others less.

[Also by Dick Meyer: Economic inequality is worse than you thought]

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