What makes citizens more trusting?

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According to vast research, nations with high levels of trust have lower levels of corruption, but how can trust be enhanced amongst a community?

Many would think that ‘civic engagement’ such as volunteering or taking part in a community group would make people trust more. However, the latest study on social capital theory has revealed that these activities do not make much difference.

In the paper, Generalized Trust Through Civic Engagement? Evidence from Five National Panel Studies the researchers used BHPS data along with household data from Switzerland, the Netherlands and Australia to estimate the relationship between changes in civic engagement (membership and volunteering) and changes in generalised social trust (agreement with the statement that most people can be trusted).

Theories on the formation of social capital predict that participation breeds trust. However, the researchers found find little evidence supporting this prediction. In fact, the BHPS is the only dataset in which they found such a positive relation. But, they note that the relation is not very strong, and does not emerge for membership, but only for volunteering.

In the other countries they saw the difference in social trust between participants and non-participants vanishes when they take the selection of participants based on trust into account. Also in the UK most of the difference between participants and non-participants is due to this selection effect. The difference between the UK results and the results for the other data sources is that in the UK a small positive relation remains when selection is taken into account.

Key findings

  • In summary, the findings offer little support for the idea that civic engagement plays an important role in the creation of generalised trust.
  • There was some evidence of small, short-term effects, but those effects turned out not to last in the Swiss data.
  • Civic engagement brings trusting individuals together, but it does not enhance generalised trust in the long run. In other words, voluntary associations seem to be “pools of democracy” rather than “schools of democracy” (Van der Meer & Van Ingen, 2009).

René Bekkers, Head of Research and Assistant Professor at the Department of Philanthropic Studies at VU University Amsterdam comments, “We found no differences across types of organisations and only minor variations across countries.”

Meet the researchers

Related links

this news has been re-posted from the Understanding Society website