Kevin Vallier: trust tends to be constant when social settings are stable

In a recent podcast, Kevin Vallier spoke about the development of social trust and the performance of trustworthy institutions. The degree of trust is generally high in well-governed societies, he emphasized.

by Thorsten Koch, MA, PgDip

Kevin Vallier, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Bowling Green State University, spoke with Aaron Ross Powell and Trevor Burrus in an episode of ‘Free Thoughts,’ a podcast by, on the topic of ‘Trust in a Polarized World.’

According to Vallier, social attitudes, including trust patterns, evolve in the primal years of childhood. As long as the social and cultural setting is stable, they appear not to alter a lot but are relatively constant. An exception to this rule is when people emigrate to other regions of the world. Should traumatization occur in a person’s life, he or she will tend to manifest very pronounced low trust attitudes. But these need not be generalized: people perform interaction with their own tribes, not displaying marked trust towards competing tribes.

Abiding by the rules

In the main, sociocultural norms are adhered to because not to follow them would prove costly, due to social sanctioning, or penalization. Hence, it appears to be in a person’s self-interest to abide by the norms of a particular setting, for “you think that others think that you should follow” these standards.

Even so, when “belief in social expectations declines”, democratic norms can decline, sometimes even collapse, Vallier said. For the most part, what takes place in an unfavorable context is a linear, gradual decline in the trust of some, at times the main institutions of a given civil and democratic order, as public opinion polls have shown.

In rare cases of frangibility, norms of social trust suffer in a non-linear, speedy manner. This happens when people’s “empirical belief” is such that the democratic process has been corrupted and undermined. In such cases, it is difficult to help trust to convalesce. Perhaps such doubtful beliefs will vanish over time, however some will continue to hold such notions.

High trust in the democratic process

Usually, trust in the democratic process led by government, and in one’s nation, is very pronounced, but particular trust issues, usually with certain aspects of the political environment, might surface, leading to “swings in trust” about set institutions, Vallier explained. The USA lately appeared to be susceptible to democratic norm erosion when some people’s reference networks, or in-groups, held the impression that there would be no orderly transition of political power. Lower levels of social trust might in such a case lead to political polarization, whereas citizens receded to “their social groups,” showing distrust to other tribes, whether left, right, or otherwise.

In states with an authoritarian system, surprisingly, social trust is quite pronounced, more often than not, “because the ones in power are in small numbers” – even in a context where “trust in institutions is low.” Nations which are in a “transition from authoritarian to democracy see very steep declines in social trust,” however. This might be explained by the dawn of free media which arouse disappointment. Another explanation is that the groups in responsibility become “much larger.” Vallier thinks it is probable that a mix of such factors is at play.

Authoritarian rule can be a detriment to social trust. Such used to be the case in East Germany where five percent of citizens “were members of the secret police.” With the advent of democratic norms and neighboring countries which held a high level of social trust, figures tended to improve, but according to Vallier, this has not been monitored for a sufficient amount of time. Vallier hypothecates that “when you have been democratic long enough,” the situation “normalizes again, and people come to trust more people more” who are in positions of power.

“Democratic institutions don’t lie”, Vallier emphasized. This is how esteem for such institutions comes about. Not by instoring “fear or punishment” but by maintaining trustiness and care in society. For instance, in the USA, “social security institutions” work quite well. What is more, a free press helps to increase social trust. All in all, the “cost-benefit ratio” in institutional services is reasonable. People perceive this as part of a “basic rationale” of “freedom and respect”.

Creating a beneficial environment

There is also a certain redistribution of goods which “creates a beneficial environment,” for example. All of this is part of a “simple requirement of rationality in how trustworthy” government is supposed to be. Were it different, with moral expectations and prospects failing, this would be seen as blameworthy.

Of course, the performance of institutions has certain limits. But overall, government is highly trusted in democracies due to the fact that corruption is low and monetary policies, for instance the performance of the Federal Reserve, in the USA, are reliable. What is more, “in well-governed market societies with strong and well-defined legal property rights,” the degree of trust is high, as there needs to be a “positive feedback loop to get markets to work.”

Except when it comes to the use of imbalanced “heavy-handed tactics,” police performs well. Due to the trustworthy functioning of police services, people tend to trust the police more. In general, local institutions range higher in trustworthiness, for instance local media.

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