Social Status Leads to Trust, but Not Vice-Versa

Social Status Leads to Trust, but Not Vice-Versa

Higher socioeconomic status can lead to an increase in a person’s level of trust, according to researchers.

Individuals within societies exhibit varying levels of trust, and someone’s capacity to put faith in others may have an impact on how well they fare in the world. In Western societies in particular, studies have found that people of lower socioeconomic status are less likely to trust social institutions. Why is this the case? Do they withhold trust because they are poorer? Or has a lifetime of not trusting led these individuals to lower social status?

PJ Henry, associate professor of psychology at NYU Abu Dhabi, is trying to determine the causal relationship between trust and status. Their research found that a decline in social status was related to a decline in social trust, which supports the idea that status determines social trust. On the other hand, they found no evidence that social trust determines status.

The authors suggest that members of “low-status groups face long-term threats to their social value” and may have had more experience being “cheated or lied to, and for practical and realistic reasons adopt a less trusting stance.”

On the other hand, people with high social status are often treated better by their peers, have more opportunities in the workplace, and simply may have a greater safety net to fall back on compared to their low status peers. In this case, trust is a “luxury” that those of lower status cannot afford.

The design of the experiment allowed researchers to measure changes in both income and trust over time. Henry explained that the surveys featured data collected at three points in time (Time 1, Time 2, Time 3). In that way, he analyzed changes that took place from Time 1 to Time 2 and could predict changes from Time 2 to Time 3.

“The question is, if I increase my income from Time 1 to Time 2, will I then increase my trust from Time 2 to Time 3?,” Henry says. “And that question can be pitted against the question of, if I increase my trust, will I later increase my income?”

“The statistics in the model show that only the former seems to be happening, that if your income changes, your trust will change later too.”

“What’s important,” Henry says, “is that this suggests that good things (such as status) don’t necessarily come to those who trust, but that instead trust may come from those who’ve had good things happen to them.”

Henry analyzed data collected by surveying populations in the US and UK. The US study involved 535 participants, the UK study 1,248. Income was the main measure of socioeconomic status, and the participants were asked questions that gauged their level of trust.

Importantly, the participants answered these surveys more than once over a period of several years. Responses to the US survey were received in 2000, 2002, and 2004, while the UK survey was given in 1998, 2003, and 2008.

“In this way we can show evidence that points toward causality even if it cannot prove causality,” Henry says.

His work is part of a larger project on a concept called stigma compensation theory. Withholding trust is just one way that individuals manage social stigma. Other strategies include reacting with hostility to insults, which can often lead to aggression and even murder. For instance, countries worldwide that have higher inequality have higher murder rates.

This phenomenon can’t be explained by poverty alone, Henry says, and he believes that places of great inequality also have many people who feel that they are devalued by their societies. “This is one of the consequences of inequality,” Henry says.

“I kind of work like an astronomer in that an astronomer can make predictions about the way things work, but has to rely on indirect evidence seen in a telescope of stars that are millions of light years away. I can do something similar too, where I speculate about what mechanisms are at play, though I can’t test them directly. But with a study like this I can see evidence bearing out in the data in the way I would predict according to a theory.”

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