If you live in the U.S. and you think that your fellow Americans’ trust in the federal government and in each other has been taking a hit recently, then you have something in common with most of them. In a study of trust and distrust in America, based on a nationally representative sample of 10,618 U.S. adults, the Pew Research Center found that 75% of the participants believed that trust in the federal government has been shrinking. Sixty-four percent believe that trust in each other has also been dwindling.
Americans also believe that the loss of trust has implications that ripple through our lives. Close to two-thirds (64%) think that our slipping sense of trust in the federal government is making it harder to solve problems. An even greater number, 70%, believe that the same is true of our decreasing sense of trust in each other.
Who Is Most and Least Trusting?
Some people are consistently more trusting than others. The Pew Center researchers measured levels of trust by asking participants about their general trust or distrust in others, their beliefs about the overall levels of helpfulness or selfishness of others, and their sense of other people’s tendencies to be exploitative versus fair.
They found that a little over one-fifth of the participants (22%) were consistently trusting. They were the “high trusters.” A greater percentage, 35%, were consistently distrusting. They were the “low trusters.” The others, 41%, were in between, sometimes trusting others and sometimes distrusting them.
People’s personal characteristics had a lot to do with their level of trust. One of the characteristics that mattered most was age. The oldest participants, 65 and older, were more than three times as likely to be high trusters than the youngest ones, 18-29. Thirty-seven percent of the senior citizens were high trusters, compared to just 11 percent of the youngest adults. Nearly half of those youngest adults, 46% qualified as low trusters, compared to just 19% of the oldest adults. We cannot know from this study whether people become more trusting as they age, or whether people born more recently are less trusting than those from previous generations — and maybe they will not become any more trusting when they get older.
Americans who are disadvantaged in a variety of ways are less likely to be trusting than those who are advantaged. People with less income are less trusting than people with more income, people with less education are less trusting than people with more education, and Blacks and Hispanics are less trusting than whites.
Although Democrats and Republicans differ in countless ways, trust is not one of them. People from the two parties are equally likely to be trusting.
When Do People Think It Is Hard to Know What’s True, and Are They Right?
Participants in the survey were asked how hard they thought it was to tell the difference between what’s true and what’s not true in four situations: listening to elected officials, using social media, watching cable television news, and talking with people you know. They thought it was hardest to tell the difference when listening to elected officials and easiest when talking with people they know.
Percent of U.S. adults who say it is hard to tell what’s true:
- 64% Listening to elected officials
- 48% Using social media
- 41% Watching cable television news
- 30% Talking with people you know
To know about the actual difficulty of distinguishing lies from truths, it is not necessary to rely on people’s impressions. Charles Bond and I reviewed more than 200 studies in which people’s accuracy at detecting lies was assessed. More than 24,000 people participated in those studies. Overall, accuracy was unimpressive. Participants were correct about who was lying and who was telling the truth only 54% of the time, when they would have been right 50% of the time if they were just guessing.
What’s more, people’s confidence in their judgments about other people’s truthfulness has nothing whatsoever to do with the accuracy of their judgments. People who think they are really good at detecting deception are no better and no worse than people who think they are terrible at it. When we averaged the results of 18 studies, my colleagues and I found that the correlation between confidence and accuracy was almost exactly zero.
Because the people in the Pew study said they had the most difficulty knowing what was true when they were listening to elected officials and the least difficulty when talking with people they knew, maybe they thought it would be easier to know if someone is lying if you know them. But that is not necessarily true. For example, in a doctoral dissertation, Eric Anderson found that romantic partners were worse than perfect strangers at knowing whether their partner thought that another person was attractive.
If there is one good thing about being distrustful, maybe it is that distrustful people are better lie detectors. Carol Toris and I tested that, by priming some people to be suspicious and leaving the others to their own devices. What we found, though, was that the suspicious people were no better at knowing who was lying and who was telling the truth than the others. Instead, their suspiciousness only made them less confident about their judgments and more likely to believe that the other person was lying, even when they weren’t.