Political Behavior

, Volume 32, Issue 2, pp 205–230 | Cite as

A Genetic Basis for Social Trust?

  • Patrick SturgisEmail author
  • Sanna Read
  • Peter K. Hatemi
  • Gu Zhu
  • Tim Trull
  • Margaret J. Wright
  • Nicholas G. Martin
Original Paper


A propensity to believe that fellow citizens will not act against our interests in social and economic transactions has been identified as key to the effective functioning of democratic polities. Yet the causes of this type of ‘generalized’ or ‘social’ trust are far from clear. To date, researchers within the social and political sciences have focused almost exclusively on social-developmental and political/institutional features of individuals and societies as the primary causal influences. In this paper we investigate the intriguing possibility that social trust might have a genetic, as well as an environmental basis. We use data collected from samples of monozygotic and dizygotic twins to estimate the additive genetic, shared environmental, and non-shared environmental components of trust. Our results show that the majority of the variance in a multi-item trust scale is accounted for by an additive genetic factor. On the other hand, the environmental influences experienced in common by sibling pairs have no discernable effect; the only environmental influences appear to be those that are unique to the individual. Our findings problematise the widely held view that the development of social trust occurs through a process of familial socialization at an early stage of the life course.


Social trust Genes Genetics Twin studies Social capital 



We gratefully acknowledge the support of the Economic and Social Research Council for funding this research (award number: RES-163-25-0021).


  1. Akaike, H. (1987). Factor analysis and AIC. Psychometrika, 52, 317–332.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Alesina, A., & Ferrara, E. L. (2004). Ethnic diversity and economic performance (pp. 1–46). Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.Google Scholar
  3. Alesina, A., & Ferrera, E. L. (2000). Participation in heterogeneous communities. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 115, 847–904.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Alesina, A., & Ferrera, E. L. (2002). Who trusts others? Journal of Public Economics, 85, 207–234.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Alford, J. R., Funk, C. L., & Hibbing, J. R. (2005). Are political orientations genetically transmitted? American political Science Review, 99, 153–167.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Alford, J., Funk, C. L., & Hibbing, J. (2008). Beyond liberals and conservatives to political genotypes and phenotypes. Perspectives in Politics, 6, 321–328.Google Scholar
  7. Alford, J., & Hibbing, J. (2008). The new empirical biopolitics. Annual Review of Political Science, 11, 183–203.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Almond, G., & Verba, S. (1963). The civic culture. Boston: Little, Brown.Google Scholar
  9. Arvery, R., Bouchard, T. J., Segal, N., & Abraham, L. (1989). Job satisfaction: Environmental and genetic components. Journal of Applied Psychology, 74, 187–192.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Bellah, R., Madsden, R., Sullivan, W., Swidler, A., & Tipton, S. (1985). Habits of the heart: Individualism and commitment in American life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  11. Bollen, K. (1989). Structural equations with latent variables. New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  12. Bouchard, T. J. (1998). Genetic and environmental influences on adult intelligence and special mental abilities. Human Biology, 70, 257–279.Google Scholar
  13. Bouchard, T. J., & Loehlin, J. C. (2001). Genes, evolution and personality. Behavior Genetics, 31, 243–273.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Bouchard, T. J., Jr., & McGue, M. (2003). Genetic and environmental influences on human psychological differences. Journal of Neurobiology, 54, 4–45.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Bouchard, T. J., Segal, N. L., Tellegen, A., McGue, M., Keyes, M., & Krueger, R. (2003). Evidence for the construct validity and heritability of the Wilson-Patterson conservatism scale: A reared-apart twins study of social attitudes. Journal of Personality and Individual Differences, 34, 959–969.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Boyd, R., Gintis, H., Bowles, S., & Richerson, P. J. (2003). The evolution of altruistic punishment. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 100, 3531–3535.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Brehm, J., & Rahn, W. (1997). Individual-level evidence for the causes and consequences of social capital. American Journal of Political Science, 41, 999–1023.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Carpenter, J. P. (2004). Trust and reciprocity: Interdisciplinary lessons from experimental research. In E. Ostrom & J. Walker (Eds.), Trust and reciprocity. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.Google Scholar
  19. Cesarini, D., Dawes, C., Fowler, J., Johannesson, M., Lichtenstein, P., & Wallace, B. (2008). Heritability of cooperative behavior in the trust game. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105, 3721–3726.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Charney, E. (2008). Genes and ideologies. Perspectives in Politics, 6, 299–315.Google Scholar
  21. Claibourn, M. P., & Martin, P. S. (2000). Trusting and joining? An empirical test of the reciprocal nature of social capital. Political Behaviour, 22, 267–291.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Coleman, J. S. (1990). Foundations of social theory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  23. Costa, P. T., Jr., & McCrae, R. R. (1992). NEO PI-R professional manual. Odessa, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources, Inc.Google Scholar
  24. Delhey, J., & Newton, K. (2003). Who trusts? The origins of social trust in seven societies. European Societies, 5, 93–137.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Distel, M. A., Ligthart, L., Willemsen, G., Nyholt, D. R., Trull, T. J., & Boomsma, D. I. (2007). Personality, health and lifestyle in a questionnaire family study: A comparison between highly cooperative and less cooperative families. Twin Research and Human Genetics, 10, 348–353.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Dohmen, T., Falk, A., Huffman, D., Sunde, U. (2006). The intergenerational transmission of risk and trust attitudes. (IZA Discussion Paper No. 2380).Google Scholar
  27. Eaves, L., & Erkanli, A. (2003). Markov chain Monte Carlo approaches to analysis of genetic and environmental components of human developmental change and G X E interaction. Behavior Genetics, 33, 279–299.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Eaves, L. J., Eysenck, H. J., & Martin, N. G. (1989). Genes, culture, and personality: An empirical approach. San Diego: Academic.Google Scholar
  29. Eaves, L. J., & Hatemi, P. K. (2008). Transmission of attitudes toward abortion and gay rights: Parental socialization or parental mate selection? Behavior Genetics, 38, 247–256.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Elster, J. (1993a). The cement of society: A survey of social order. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  31. Elster, J. (1993b). Some unresolved problems in the theory of rational behaviour. Acta Sociologica, 36, 179.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Ermisch, J., Laurie, H., Uhrig, N., Siedler, T., & Gambetta, D. (2009). Measuring people’s trust. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, 172, 749–769.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Evans, D. M., & Martin, N. G. (2000). The validity of twin studies. GeneScreen, 1, 77–79.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Falconer, D. S., & Mackay, T. F. C. (1996). Introduction to quantitative genetics (4th ed.). Harlow, Essex: Longmans Green.Google Scholar
  35. Fehr, E., & Fischbacher, U. (2004). Third-party punishment and social norms. Evolution and Human Behavior, 25, 63–87.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Fehr, E., & Gintis, H. (2007). Human motivation and social cooperation: Experimental and analytical foundations. Annual Review of Sociology, 33, 43–64.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Fischbacher, U., Gachter, S., & Fehr, E. (2001). Are people conditionally cooperative? Evidence from a public goods experiment. Economic Letters, 71, 397–404.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Fowler, J., Baker, L., & Dawes, C. (2008). Genetic variation in political participation. American Political Science Review, 102, 233–248.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Fowler, J., & Dawes, C. (2008). Two genes predict voter turnout. Journal of Politics, 70, 579–594.Google Scholar
  40. Fukayama, F. (1995). Trust. New York: Free Press.Google Scholar
  41. Fukuyama, F. (1995a). Social capital and the global economy. Foreign Affairs, 74, 89–98.Google Scholar
  42. Fukuyama, F. (1995b). Trust: The social virtues and the creation of prosperity. London: Penguin.Google Scholar
  43. Gachter, S., Hermann, B., & Thoni, C. (2004). Trust, voluntary cooperation, and socio-economic background: Survey and experimental evidence. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, 55, 505–531.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Gintis, H., Bowles, S., Boyd, R., & Fehr, E. (2003). Explaining altruistic behavior in humans. Evolution and Human Behavior, 24, 153–172.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Glaeser, E. L., Laibson, D., Scheinkman, J. A., & Soutter, C. L. (2000). Measuring trust. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 115, 811–846.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Goldberg, L. R. (1993). The structure of phenotypic personality traits. American Psychologist, 48, 26–34.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Halpern, D. (2001). Moral values, social trust and inequality: Can values explain crime. British Journal of Criminology, 41, 236–252.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Harden, K. P., Turkheimer, E., & Loehlin, J. C. (2007). Genotype by environment interaction in adolescents’ cognitive aptitude. Behavior Genetics, 37, 273–283.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Hardin, R. (2001). Conceptions and explanations of trust. In K. Cook (Ed.), Trust and society (pp. 3–39). New York: Russell Sage Foundation.Google Scholar
  50. Hardin, R. (2006). Trust. Cambridge: Polity.Google Scholar
  51. Harris, J. R. (1998). The nurture assumption: Why children turn out the way they do. New York: Simon and Schuster.Google Scholar
  52. Hatemi, P. K., Funk, C. L., Medland, S. E., Maes, H., Silberg, J., Martin N. G., et al. (2009c). Genetic and environmental transmission of political attitudes across the life-course. Journal of Politics, 71(3), 1141–1156.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Hatemi, P. K., Hibbing, J. R., Alford, J. R., Martin, N. G., & Eaves, L. J. (2009a). Is there a party in your genes? Political Research Quarterly, 62, 584–600.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Hatemi, P. K., Medland, S. E., & Eaves, L. J. (2009b). Genetic sources of the gender gap? Journal of Politics, 71, 262–276.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Hatemi, P. K., Medland, S. E., Morley, K. I., Heath, A. C., & Martin, N. G. (2007). The genetics of voting: An Australian twin study. Behavior Genetics, 37, 435–448.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Hayduk, L. A. (1987). Structural equation modeling with LISREL: Essentials and advances. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.Google Scholar
  57. Heath, A. F., Jowell, Roger., & Curtice, John. (1985). How Britain votes. Oxford: Pergamon.Google Scholar
  58. Hiraishi, K., Yamagata, S., Shikishima, C., & Ando, J. (2008). Maintenance of genetic variation in personality through control of mental mechanisms: A test of trust, extraversion, and agreeableness. Evolution and Human Behavior, 29, 79–85.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Inglehart, R. (1997). Modernisation and postmodernisation. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  60. Inglehart, R. (1999a). Postmodernization erodes respect for authority but increases support for democracy. In P. Norris (Ed.), Critcal citizens (pp. 236–256). Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Inglehart, R. (1999b). Trust, well-being and democracy. In M. E. Warren (Ed.), Democracy and trust (pp. 88–120). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Jang, K. L., Livesley, W. J., Angleitner, A., Riemann, R., & Vernon, P. A. (2002). Genetic and environmental influences on the covariance of facets defining the domains of the five-factor model of personality. Personality and Individual Differences, 33, 83–101.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Jang, K. L., McCrae, R. R., Angleitner, A., Riemann, R., & Livesley, W. J. (1998). Heritability of facet-level traits in a cross-cultural twin sample: Support for a hierarchical model of personality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1556–1565.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Kawachi, I. (1997). Long live community: Social capital as public health. American Prospect, 35, 56–59.Google Scholar
  65. Kawachi, I., Kennedy, B., & Glass, R. (1999). Social capital and self-rated health: A contextual analysis. American Journal of Public Health, 8, 1187–1193.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Kendler, K. S., Martin, N. G., Heath, A. C., & Eaves, L. J. (1995). Self-report psychiatric symptoms in twins and their nontwin relatives: Are twins different? American Journal of Medical Genetics (Neuropsychiatric Genetics), 60, 588–591.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Knack, S. (2002). Social capital and the quality of government: Evidence from the United States. American Journal of Political Science, 46, 772–785.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Knack, S., & Keefer, P. (1997). Does social capital have an economic payoff? A cross-country investigation. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 112, 1251–1288.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Kosfeld, M., Heinrichs, M., Zak, P., Fischbacher, U., & Fehr, E. (2005). Oxytocin increases trust in humans. Nature, 435, 673–676.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Kurzban, R., & Houser, D. (2005). Experiments investigating cooperative types in humans: A complement to evolutionary theory and simulations. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 102, 1803–1807.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. La Porta, R., Lopez-de-Silanes, F., Shleifer, A., & Vishny, R. (1999). The quality of government. Journal of Law, Economics and Organization, 15, 222–279.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Li, Y., Pickles, A., & Savage, M. (2005). Social capital and social trust in Britain. European Sociological Review, 21, 109–123.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Mansbridge, J. (1999). Altruistic trust. In M. E. Warren (Ed.), Democracy and trust (pp. 290–309). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Martin, N. G., Eaves, L. J., Heath, A. C., Jardine, R., Feingold, L. M., & Eysenck, H. J. (1986). Transmission of social attitudes. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 83, 4364–4368.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Medland, S. E., & Hatemi, P. K. (2009). Political science, biometric theory, and twin studies: A methodological introduction. Political Analysis, 17, 191–214.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Mischel, W. (1986). Introduction to personality (4th ed.). New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.Google Scholar
  77. Nannestad, P. (2008). What have we learned about generalized trust, if anything? Annual Review of Political Science, 11, 413–436.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  78. Neale, M. C. (1997). Mx: Statistical modeling (Box980126) (3rd ed.). Richmond, VA: MCV.Google Scholar
  79. Neale, M. C., & Cardon, L. R. (1992). Methodology for genetic studies of twins and families. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.Google Scholar
  80. Newton, K., & Delhey, J. (2005). Predicting cross-national levels of social trust: Global pattern or Nordic exceptionalism? European Sociological Review, 21, 311–327.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  81. Nie, N., Junn, J., & Stehlik-Barry, K. (1996). Education and democratic citizenship in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  82. Norris, P. (2001). Making democracies work: Social capital and civic engagement in 47 countries. In: European science foundation EURESCO conference on social capital: Interdisciplinary perspectives. Exeter: University of Exeter.Google Scholar
  83. Ostrom, E., & Walker, J. (Eds.). (2003). Trust and reciprocity: Interdisciplinary lessons from experimental research. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.Google Scholar
  84. Ostrom, E., & Walker, J. (2004). Trust and reciprocity: Interdisciplinary lessons from experimental research. Contemporary Sociology, 33, 493–494.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  85. Patterson, O. (1999). Liberty against the democratic state: On the historical and contemporary sources of American distrust. In M. E. Warren (Ed.), Democracy and trust (pp. 151–207). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  86. Paxton, P. (1999). Is social capital declining in the United States? A multiple indicator assessment. The American Journal of Sociology, 105, 88–127.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  87. Paxton, P. (2007). Not all association memberships increase trust: A model of generalized trust in thirty-one countries. Social Forces, 86, 47–76.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  88. Pilia, G., Chen, W. -M., Scuteri, A., Orrú, M., Albai, G., Dei, M., et al. (2006). Heritability of cardiovascular and personality traits in 6, 148 sardinians. PLoS Genetics, 2, e132.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  89. Plomin, R. (1994). Genetics and experience: The interplay between nature and nurture. Thousand Oaks CA: Sage.Google Scholar
  90. Putnam, R. D. (1993). Making democracy work: Civic traditions in modern Italy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  91. Putnam, R. (1996). The strange disappearance of civic America. The American Prospect, 24, 34–48.Google Scholar
  92. Putnam, R. (2000). Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. New York: Simon and Schuster.Google Scholar
  93. Putnam, R. (2002). Bowling together. The American Prospect, 13, 20–22.Google Scholar
  94. Putnam, R. D. (2007). E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and community in the twenty-first century the 2006 Johan Skytte prize lecture. Scandinavian Political Studies, 30, 137–174.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  95. Rosenberg, M. (1956). Misanthropy and political ideology. American Sociological Review, 21, 690–695.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  96. Rothstein, B. (2004). Social trust and honesty in government: A causal mechanisms approach. In J. Kornai, B. Rothstein, & S. Rose-Ackerman (Eds.), Creating social trust in post-socialist transitions. New York: Palgrave Macmillen.Google Scholar
  97. Rothstein, B., & Uslaner, E. M. (2006). All for all: Equality and social trust. World Politics, 58, 652–654.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  98. Rotter, J. (1980). Interpersonal trust, trustworthiness, and gullibility. American Psychologist, 35, 1–7.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  99. Rowe, D. (1994). The limits of family influence: Genes, experience, and behavior. New York: The Guildford Press.Google Scholar
  100. Sampson, R. J., Raudenbush, S., & Earls, F. (1997). Neighborhoods and violent crime: A multilevel study of collective efficacy. Science, 277, 918–924.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  101. Scarr, S., & Carter-Saltzman, L. (1979). Twin method: Defense of a critical assumption. Behavior Genetics, 9, 527–542.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  102. Shikishima, C., Hiraishi, K., & Ando, J. (2006). Genetic and environmental influences on general trust: A test of a theory of trust with behavioral genetic and evolutionary psychological approaches. Japanese Journal of Social Psychology, 22, 48–57.Google Scholar
  103. Stolle, D. (2003). The sources of social capital. In D. Stolle & M. Hooghe (Eds.), Generating social capital: Civil society, institutions in comparative perspective. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.Google Scholar
  104. Stolle, D., & Hooghe, M. (2004). The roots of social capital: Attitudinal and network mechanisms in the relation between youth and adult indicators of social capital. Acta Politica, 39, 422–441.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  105. Sturgis, P., Patulny, R., Allum, N. (2007, February 22–25). What makes trusters trust? Paper presented at the reciprocity: Theories and facts conference, Verbania, Italy.Google Scholar
  106. Sturgis, P., & Smith, P. (in press). Assessing the validity of generalized trust questions: What kind of trust are we measuring? International Journal of Public Opinion Research.Google Scholar
  107. Turkheimer, E. (1998). Heritability and biological explanation. Psychological Review, 105, 782–791.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  108. Turkheimer, E. (2004). Spinach and ice cream: Why social science is so difficult. In L. DiLalla (Ed.), Behavior genetics principles: Perspectives in development, personality, psychopathology (pp. 161–189). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  109. Uslaner, E. M. (2000). Producing and consuming trust. Political Science Quarterly, 115, 569–590.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  110. Uslaner, E. (2002). The moral foundations of trust. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  111. Uslaner, E. (2008). Where you stand depends upon where your grandparents sat. Public Opinion Quarterly, 72, 725–740.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  112. Uslaner, Eric M., & Mitchell Brown. (2005). “Inequality, Trust and Civic Engagement: a review of the literature for the Russell Sage Foundation.” American Politics Research, 33(6), 868–894.Google Scholar
  113. Visscher, P. M. (2004). Power of the classical twin design revisited. Twin Research, 7, 505–512.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  114. Whiteley, P. (1999). The origins of social capital. In J. van Deth, M. Maraffi, K. Newton, & P. Whiteley (Eds.), Social capital and European democracy. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  115. Wright, M. J., & Martin, N. G. (2004). The brisbane adolescent twin study: Outline of study methods and research projects. Australian Journal of Psychology, 56(2004), 65–78.Google Scholar
  116. Zak, P. J., Kurzban, R., & Matzner, W. (2005). Oxytocin is associated with human trustworthiness. Hormones and Behavior, 48, 522–527.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  117. Zmerli, S., & Newton, K. (2008). Social trust and attitudes toward democracy. Public Opinion Quarterly, 72, 706–724.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  • Patrick Sturgis
    • 1
    Email author
  • Sanna Read
    • 2
  • Peter K. Hatemi
    • 3
  • Gu Zhu
    • 4
  • Tim Trull
    • 5
  • Margaret J. Wright
    • 4
  • Nicholas G. Martin
    • 4
  1. 1.Division of Social Statistics, School of Social SciencesUniversity of SouthamptonSouthamptonUK
  2. 2.Centre for Population StudiesLondon School of Hygiene and Tropical MedicineLondonUK
  3. 3.Department of Political ScienceUniversity of IowaIowa CityUSA
  4. 4.Genetic Epidemiology UnitQueensland Institute of Medical ResearchBrisbaneAustralia
  5. 5.Department of PsychologyUniversity of MissouriColumbiaUSA

Personalised recommendations