“Can I trust you?”

The impact of trust across cultures

People’s trust in each other differs across the world. At the same time, research shows that trust is a more powerful predictor of future national growth rates than levels of human capital or skills in the population. The more we have contact and feel connected to each other, the more trustworthy someone seems to us.


October 2017


Susan Salzbrenner

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 parked outside cafés, while mothers sipped their coffee inside. No one ever asked for proof of receipts when I updated my tax declaration, and likewise when Danes sent their CV with a job application. This was not the norm for me as a German nor has it been a norm in most of the places where I have lived across the world.

Trust is not a given

Generally, the world does not trust each other very much. In fact, those countries where more than half of the population feels it can trust one another is a clear minority. The numbers come from the World Values Survey, a longitudinal study (starting in 1981) that is carried out by a social scientist research network based in Stockholm, Sweden. And it shows that trust is not a given.

Have a look at this map (see interactive map here):

Share of people agreeing with the statement 'most people can be trusted', 2014. Source:

The countries that score high on trust are also incredibly stable in trust scores over time. Sweden, as an example, has been persistently reporting scores between 50-60% in the Eurostat’s reports 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 – the U.S has gone down from 46% in 1972 to 31% in 2014.

The burning question now becomes: Does this difference in perceived trust within a population have an influence on its society? Here, the simple answer is yes.

GDP is closely related to trust levels

When investigating the effects, the Behavioural Insights Team, led by David Halpern, 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 (a high level of trust has the same positive health effect as giving up smoking).

The relation between trust scores and GDP can be seen in this chart.

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)

Us vs them – a natural when building identity, but shattering organisation building

Looking back at the data, most of the high ranking “trust nations” are small in population size (apart from China) and quite homogeneous. They do not belong to the cluster of immigration culture, like the U.S. or Brazil. People in the Nordics trust each other, because they perceive themselves as similar and therefore feel like they belong to one group.

Belonging to a group, we tend to overestimate the skills and abilities of those in our group, when we are in doubt. This is called in-group favouritism and has been studied by social psychologists for decades.

When we build our identity and self-esteem, the distinction of “us vs them” is an important (implicit) strategy. This strategy changes in diverse, large populations, where subgroups often become more reliable anchors of someone’s social identity and group membership. In teams and organisations that have not been able to create an inclusive culture, the same holds true. And whereas the distinction of “us vs them” is an essential part of forming your personal identity, it is not very healthy for an organisational culture. Neither is finding your identity in competing subgroups (silos) that create competitive instead of collaborative environments.

So how do we create trust in diverse teams or populations?

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 the decisions we make, the collaborations we are part of and the friends we choose. On an organisational and nationwide 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:

Rebuild social capital

Social capital 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 social capital is closeness to family, relatives and friends, which is particularly important for its health benefits.
  • Bridging social capital 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.

Diversity is a benefit, so get to know each other!

Diversity is not the easiest thing. 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 neighbours.”

However, in the long run, diversity 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 German side wonders how much longer they will be willing to offer us foreigners a trusting peek into their life. The world will have to flex and adjust to incoming immigration waves, a globalised workforce and technological transformations in the future. How will they respond?

Maybe we can start by turning the question of “Can I trust you?” into “Can I get to know you?”

What do you think?