When I first moved to Denmark in 2008, I was stunned by the simple, but powerful signs of trust among the Danish population.
- Strollers with sleeping babies were parking outside cafes while mothers on their (long) maternity leave were sipping cafe lattes inside.
- Bags were being left unattended in cafes or libraries, laptops open, while Danes left to fulfill basic human needs.
- The tax office asked me to update my tax declaration, without ever asking for proof of receipts.
- Danes applied for jobs and their CV stated their educational background, without ever finding a proof of license or diploma attached. No one in HR seemed concerned.
- I literally walked onto the train and metro for the first few days not knowing when and where to pay, because it was so hard to see the tiny machines.
In short, I was absolutely flabbergasted by the level of trust the Danish government and society bestowed upon each other.
As you might imagine from my described surprise, this wasn’t the norm for me. Having been raised in Eastern Germany, a good amount of suspicion was considered healthy in interactions. (“You never know who is listening”) While the situation of my early childhood was definitely not what a lot of people experienced growing up, there is still a huge difference in perceived levels of trust across cultures and regions of the world.
Cross-cultural differences in perceived trust
Perceived trust has been a question included in the World Values Survey, a longitudinal study (starting in 1981) carried out by a social scientist research network based in Stockholm, Sweden. Imagine someone posing you this question:
Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you need to be careful in dealing with people?
Representing almost 100 countries and more than 90% of the population, the survey reveals that trust is not a given. A truth that many trusting Scandinavians that I work and interact with often have a hard time coming to terms with. In fact, those countries where more than half of the population feels it can trust one another is a clear minority.
Have a look at this map:
While Scandinavian nations like Norway, Finland, Sweden and Denmark score persistently high in trust (over 60%), there are only six other nations with a positive equilibrium. The message: The world doesn’t trust other people much.
Particularly devastating is the message in countries like Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Turkey, and Rwanda, where the level of trust in each other is lower than 10%.
As a multicultural family, we experience this gap between a very trusting nation (Denmark) and a very non-trusting nation (Brazil) each time we visit the in-laws in Sao Paulo. I am reminded about ten times a day to watch my bag and to leave valuable items at home. Last December, we were casually strolling through the park while the kids were running to the playground, when a police car stopped me to note that I should keep my children at a closer distance.
The impact of trust on a nation
The burning question now becomes: Does this difference in perceived trust within a population have an influence on its society? The simple answer is Yes.
The Behavioral Insights Team, led by David Halpern, investigated the effects and noted two main results:
- Trust is a more powerful predictor of future national growth rates than levels of human capital or skills in the population.
- Trust influences your health dramatically (high trust has the same positive health effect as giving up smoking).
Additionally, research by Bob Putnam, Harvard, on social capital, also found a link between the trust in your network and
- Lower crime rates
- Kids doing better in school
- Higher economic growth (all other things being equal)
To say it in Halpern’s words:
“Low trust implies a society where you have to keep an eye over your shoulder, where deals need lawyers instead of handshakes, where you don’t see the point of paying your tax or recycling your rubbish since you doubt your neighbor will do so, and where you employ your cousin or your brother-in-law to work for you rather than a stranger who’d probably be much better at the job.”
The relationship between trust scores and GDP
The countries that score high on trust are also incredibly stable over time (given that data is available for over 30 years). Sweden, as an example, has been persistently reporting scores between 50–60% in the Eurostats reports (10-point Likert scale, question: To what extent is it possible to trust people?) for the past 20 years (1995–2015).
On the other hand, heterogeneous populations like those of the U.S. trust each other less now than 40 years ago (USA down from 46% in 1972, to 31% in 2014). Anyone that has observed the recent presidential elections would probably be as curious as I am to see a number on trust among U.S. citizens in 2017. PEW Research Center publishes data on trust in government, which is at an all time low of 19%.
Trusting a diverse, globalized population
I recently facilitated a workshop for international talents new to Denmark and one of the participants from the U.S. raised a concern. He had been in Denmark for a few months and noticed that some of his colleague in the department were out on sick leave due to stress. He questioned whether or not they were “really sick” or just taking advantage of the system. Needless to say that trusting Danes were appalled by his assumption. However, from his perspective, trust isn’t a given but has to be earned through hard work, and by creating visibility for one’s own reliable accomplishment.
Situations like these, where people with different assumptions and values interact or work together, are happening right now all over the world as you are reading this (thank you for taking the time!). How can diverse teams or populations trust each other?
Looking back at the data, most of the high ranking “trust nations” are small in population size (apart from China) and quite homogeneous. They don’t belong to the cluster of immigration culture, like the U.S. or Brazil. People in Denmark, Sweden or Norway trust each other, because they perceive themselves as similar and therefore feel like they belong to one group. When in doubt, we overestimate the skills and abilities of those in our group.
In-group favoritism has been studied by social psychologists for decades, and the recent surge in unconscious bias awareness training underline the need for action in times of globalization. The distinction of “us vs. them” is an important (implicit) strategy to build an identity and self-esteem. In diverse, large populations, subgroups often become more reliable anchors of someone’s social identity and group membership. The same holds true for teams or organizations that haven’t been able to create an inclusive culture.
Establishing trust across cultures
A few things are clearer now:
- There is a remarkable cross-country heterogeneity in trust that we observe today.
- Trust is significantly linked to economic performance.
- Homogeneous groups are more likely to trust each other.
While one of my philosophies is that “Self-awareness comes first.”, it is not good enough to stop here. On a personal level, we need to figure out how our perceived trust level influences decisions we make, collaborations we take, or friends we chose. On an organizational and nation level, we need to address the integration and inclusion of a more and more diverse group of people that is struggling to see the similarities and lacking the appreciation of differences.Here is one idea to start with:
RE-BUILD SOCIAL CAPITAL
Social capital (SC) is essentially the quality and quantity of your network, but you can divide it into two categories: bonding social capital and bridging social capital.
- Bonding SC is closeness to family, relatives, and friends, which is particularly important for its health benefits.
- Bridging SC is the network of people that are different to you (in for example, class, religion, race, age, occupation). This is the network that has been declining in diverse cultures, but is essential for cohesion and economic growth.
As Putnam puts it: “it’s not easy to do diversity. That diversity brings out the turtle in us. … in a more diverse setting, everybody kind of pulls in and disconnects from their neighbors.”
Diversity in the long run, however, has tremendous benefits to the economy, level of innovation, and creativity. Simply put, to raise the level of trust, we need to get to know each other better — as a first step. We need to reach across divides, engage with different opinions while being aware of our own lens and biases.
While I marvel at the Danes peculiar aversion to curtains, my East-German realist self (some call it pessimist) wonders how much longer they will be willing to offer us a trusting peek into their life. The world will have to flex and adjust to incoming immigration waves, a globalized workforce, and technological transformations in the future. How will they respond?
MAYBE WE CAN START BY TURNING THE QUESTION OF
“CAN I TRUST YOU?” to “CAN I GET TO KNOW YOU?”
What do you think?
About the author:
Susan Salzbrenner is an organizational psychologist, currently based in Copenhagen, Denmark. She focuses on supporting (future) global leaders, diverse teams and international organizations navigating complex, changing environments and building a thriving, inclusive culture. Originally German, Susan has lived and worked in six countries on four continents. When she isn’t reading up on the latest research in neuroscience and social psychology, she is designing learning solutions or facilitating workshops on international change management, global leadership, and diversity and inclusion strategy.