For three decades, scholars have focused on generalized interpersonal trust as the key component of social capital and there is a wide consensus that trust in strangers is the prime indicator of people’s general trust in others. However, little work with a specific focus on trust in strangers has been conducted in a comparative multilevel framework. The few existing studies are inconclusive because of deficiencies in both conceptualization and test strategy. Filling this gap, this article examines the determinants of trust in strangers on the broadest country base ever used in the study of trust, drawing on global cross-cultural evidence from the fifth and sixth rounds of the World Values Surveys—the first international surveys to include a direct question on trust in strangers. Reaching beyond conventional wisdom about the sources of generalized trust, we demonstrate that human empowerment at the country level is a powerful moderator of well-known individual-level determinants of trust. Specifically, in countries with lagging human empowerment, institutional trust, trust in known people, and material satisfaction are the only individual-level characteristics that enhance trust in strangers. We also detect an unexpected negative effect of education where human empowerment is lagging. In sharp contrast, in countries with advanced human empowerment, a much broader set of individual-level characteristics increases trust in strangers. This set includes ethnic tolerance, membership in voluntary associations, social movement activity, emancipative values, subjective well-being, age, and education. These insights inform a multilevel theory of trust, showing that human empowerment operates as a contextual activator of individual trust promoters.
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Indeed, only in 2 out 53 countries (Egypt and Vietnam) from the 5th wave and in 5 out 58 countries (Pakistan, Rwanda, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen) from the 6th wave of the WVS the level of trust in strangers is slightly higher than trust in people of another nationality. Three more countries from the 5th and 3 countries from the 6th wave have equal levels for both types. Regarding trust people of another religion, only 3 countries (Bahrain, Tunisia, Yemen) from the WVS6 but not from the WVS5 have higher level than trust in strangers. One country from the WVS5 and 5 countries from the WVS6 have equal shares of respondents trusting in strangers and in people of another religion. In all other countries from the 5th and the 6th wave the level of trust in strangers is significantly lower.
We also tested ordered models but they demonstrated similar effects. Since linear models have more straightforward interpretation we are using them throughout the manuscript.
After dropping trust in known people and subjective well-being from final multi-level model, locus of control became significant at the 0.05 level in countries with middle level of human empowerment and at the 0.001 level in countries with high level of empowerment.
We also tested models with group-centered income which take into account the average decile for each country but the models demonstrated almost identical results.
In addition, we estimated models using active and inactive membership as a single category and got similar results.
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The study has been funded by the Russian Academic Excellence Project ‘5-100’.
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Almakaeva, A., Welzel, C. & Ponarin, E. Human Empowerment and Trust in Strangers: The Multilevel Evidence. Soc Indic Res 139, 923–962 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11205-017-1724-z
- Generalized trust
- Trust radius
- Trust theories
- Human empowerment
- Multilevel modeling
- Moderation effect