Social trust between citizens of the United States has been sharply reduced in recent decades. Fifty years ago, almost 70 per cent said that you can generally trust other people. Now, that number is less than 40 per cent. In a number of countries, less than 10 per cent of the population believes that other people can be trusted.
Social trust between citizens of the United States has been sharply reduced in recent decades. Fifty years ago, almost 70 per cent said that you can generally trust other people. Now, that number is less than 40 per cent. In a number of countries, less than 10 per cent of the population believes that other people can be trusted.

Does immigration lead to less trust in a society?

People in Norway and Sweden have a great deal of trust in each other. Swedish researchers have now looked to see if this trust is dropping in areas where many people of different ethnic backgrounds live.

Research results are mixed when it comes to the effects of multiculturism on social trust in a society. Some studies say multiculturalism weakens social trust, while other studies show the opposite.

A group of social scientists at the University of Gothenburg have followed the development of social trust between people in all 290 Swedish municipalities for a number of years.

They have found that trust between Swedes has remained high over time. The large wave of immigration to Sweden in 2015 has done little to change this, the researchers say.

Norwegians have a great deal of trust in each other

Norway is probably the top country in the world when it comes to people’s trust in each other. Sweden is also high on this list.

People also have a great deal of trust in each other in the Netherlands, Finland, Vietnam and New Zealand.

In countries such as Brazil, Peru and Tanzania, less than 10 per cent of the population believes that others are generally to be trusted. People in Turkey and the Philippines are thought to have the least trust in each other.

Social scientists have asked people the world over if they agree or disagree with the same question:

"Do you think most people can be generally trusted?"

When Statistics Norway last asked Norwegians about this in 2019, 75 per cent answered in the affirmative. That was about the same proportion as when people were asked in 2008.

The trust that Norwegians have in each other thus appears to be strong and stable.

The group that answered affirmatively to the statement “You can’t be careful enough when meeting other people" — has also remain unchanged. In Norway, it is stable at 17 per cent. The remaining percentage answered, "Don't know".

In the vast majority of the world’s countries, less than half the population answers in the affirmative when researchers ask them if most people are to be trusted. What’s most common is that the majority answers that you can’t be careful enough when meeting other people.

The percentage of the population that answers in the affirmative to the statement "Most people are to be trusted." In 2014, there were only nine countries where more than half of inhabitants answered in the affirmative. The highest percentage was in Norway.
The percentage of the population that answers in the affirmative to the statement "Most people are to be trusted." In 2014, there were only nine countries where more than half of inhabitants answered in the affirmative. The highest percentage was in Norway.

What do we know about people who have the least trust?

When the Norwegian Digitisation Agency conducted its last population survey in 2019, they looked a little closer at the 17 per cent of Norwegians who have low social trust, meaning the group that says that they don’t trust other people that much.

These respondents are often under 35, have fewer years of education, work in the private sector, receive public welfare payments, have been born abroad or have parents who were born abroad.

People with low social trust in Norway also have more negative attitudes towards the authorities. In particular, they are negative towards politicians. Compared to their more trusting counterparts, they clearly think politicians are corrupt.

So there is a lot of evidence that trust in other people and trust in public institutions go hand in hand. And vice versa.

What happens when immigrants arrive?

What happens when relatively many people from other parts of the world — from countries where people often have very little trust in each other — immigrate to countries like Norway and Sweden?

Certain circles in American social research hold as an established truth that social trust risks becoming weaker in communities with many ethnic groups.

"Social trust is the very glue that holds society together," says Bo Rothstein, a professor of political science at Gothenburg University, in a press release.

“Studying this issue in relation to multiculturalism is consequently perceived as extra important, when clear differences between groups lead to tensions such as those we see in today's United States,” he said in the release.

Bo Rothstein is a professor of political science at the University of Gothenburg.
Bo Rothstein is a professor of political science at the University of Gothenburg.

Also stable in Sweden

In the latest study of social trust conducted by Rothstein and colleagues in 2019, they found that 57 per cent of the Swedish population can be counted in the high social trust group and 12 per cent in the low social trust group.

Just as in Norway, social trust between people in Sweden has remained very stable over time.

Researchers also found that young, less-well-educated and foreign-born individuals in Sweden have the lowest trust in other people — much like in Norway.

Immigration did not lead to less trust

At the same time, the Swedish researchers found that trust between people in municipalities with many immigrants was as high as in municipalities with a small immigrant population. Thus, they found no correlation between a high proportion of foreign-born residents and low social trust.

The researchers also did not see evidence that the high levels of immigration to Sweden, especially after 2015, affected social trust between people in Swedish municipalities.

During what was called the refugee crisis in Sweden in 2015, the researchers recorded a decline in public trust. But the researchers explain this based on the context of the harsh debate at that time, rather than the immigration itself.

“The fact that people's trust is not significantly affected by a growing proportion of foreign-born people in the country indicates that we have a development that differs from what we see through American research,” he said. “But this is something we have to monitor.”

Rothstein warns that no one should take the trust that exists between people in Swedish society for granted.

High trust provides many benefits

High social trust between inhabitants results in a society with many benefits.

For example, it’s easier to establish a well-functioning tax system, which in turn makes it easier to finance a well-functioning welfare state.

This means better health care, better schools and better transport.

If trust is low and many in a society believe that others are avoiding paying taxes, there is a greater likelihood of them trying to escape paying taxes, too. And thus the welfare state is weakened.

The trust people have in each other in Norway is very high compared to other countries.
The trust people have in each other in Norway is very high compared to other countries.

Differences between southern and northern Italy

Perhaps the most well-known international researcher in this field is the political science professor Robert Putnam, from Harvard University in the US.

He may be most famous for his book "Making Democracy Work", a 1993 publication where he looked at the difference between communities in southern and northern Italy and the great disparities between them. Putnam believed that a great deal of the differences were due to disparities in social trust, meaning disparities in the perception of other people as trustworthy.

Putnam subsequently became interested in the extent to which immigration to a country leads to reduced social trust.

He has pointed out that there are two ruling theories. The optimistic theory says that people who live in multicultural societies become more tolerant and gain more trust in each other, while the pessimistic theory says that people who live in multicultural societies are more likely to take care of "their own" and become more distrustful of others.

Putnam himself believes that the latter is probably most likely to be true (which he, as a liberal-minded American, deeply regrets), and cites research data on the subject that has been collected on American society.

Is Putnam right?

Researchers in a number of other countries have subsequently used the Harvard professor's theory as a starting point for their own studies.

The results of surveys in different countries point in different directions. Roughly 30 per cent support Putnam's theory, about 30 per cent have found the opposite, while about 40 per cent found no answer either way.

In general, studies conducted in the United States provide the most support for Putnam's theory that increased ethnic diversity leads to less social trust between people in a society.

But in Sweden and Norway —both countries with high immigration — social trust between people has been surprisingly stable, Rothstein and his colleagues write in a new research article.

The large proportion of people in these countries who say they have high trust in others have not been significantly reduced after immigration.

Translated by Nancy Bazilchuk

References (all in Norwegian or Swedish):

Sören Holmberg and Bo Rothstein: "Do multicultural societies reduce social trust?", In the book "Storm Clouds" from the University of Gothenburg, 2020.

Gothenburg University: “Multiculturalism does not affect Swedish trust”, press release, June 8, 2020

Norwegian Digitisation Agency: “Citizens' Survey 2019”

Norwegian Digitisation Agency: "Trust is not randomly distributed", Difiblog, 2019

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Read the Norwegian version of this article at forskning.no

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