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Trust as an alternative to risk


Many students of trust see it as a way to mitigate risk through the development of strong institutions that create trust. I offer an alternative view of trust, moralistic or generalized trust, that depends upon a psychological foundation of optimism and control. This form of trust, in contrast to arguments by Paldam and others, has “value” independent of experience. Using data from a survey of metropolitan Philadelphia in 1996, I show that if you believe that “most people can be trusted,” you are substantially more likely to see your neighborhood as safe at night even controlling for both the objective level of crime as well having been the victim of a crime, having had parents who were the victims of crime, watching local television news (which exposes people to violent events), where you live (central city and suburb), and gender. Trust thus “reduces” perceptions of risk independently of personal experience.

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  1. This finding comes from the Pew Research Center for The People and The Press’s 1996 Trust and Citizen Engagement survey in metropolitan Philadelphia. Ninety-seven % of moralistic trusters said that other people trust them, compared to a still very high eighty-six % of mistrusters (tau-b = 0.174, gamma = 0.627). This result may reflect either reality—perhaps we are more likely to trust people who trust us—or it may also be part of the general syndrome of overinterpretation.

  2. Most of this section comes from Uslaner (2002), Chap. 7. The data bases and the specific statistical analyses (all multivariate) are discussed in that chapter.

  3. For details on the survey, see: and for more details and the full questionnaire, see There is no publicly available description of the rape (or other violence measures) for neighborhoods. The measures run from 1 to over 2000, with the exact interpretation unstated. The source of the data was described to me by Andrew Kohut, then Director of the Pew Center for The People and The Press in a private conversation.

  4. I also did estimates including education, but it was not significant. There is no clear theoretical linkage between education and perceptions of safety so there is no reason to include it in the models.

  5. Do more trusting neighborhoods lead to less violence or does less violence lead to greater trust? Likely the direction of causality goes both ways, but this is not the place to examine this question (cf. Uslaner 2002, Chaps. 5, 8).


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The research assistance of Mitchell Brown is greatly appreciated. I am also grateful to the Russell Sage Foundation and the Carnegie Foundation for a grant under the Russell Sage program on The Social Dimensions of Inequality (see and to the General Research Board of the Graduate School of the University of Maryland—College Park. Some of the data reported here come from the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR), which is not responsible for any interpretations. Other data come from the Pew Center for The People and The Press and I am grateful to Andrew Kohut for making them available to me. Most of the arguments here come from Uslaner (2002). I am grateful for the comments of David Levin.

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Uslaner, E.M. Trust as an alternative to risk. Public Choice 157, 629–639 (2013).

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  • Trust
  • Social capital
  • Risk

JEL Classification

  • Z13
  • K42