Low Income Earners Less Trusting, Study Finds

Trust is an important element of every society. From business, to politics, to personal relationships, trust plays a critical role in allowing these institutions to function smoothly.

But individuals within societies exhibit varying levels of trust, and one's capacity to put faith in others may have an impact how well they fare in the world. In Western societies in particular, studies have found that people of lower socioeconomic status are less likely to trust social institutions. Why is this the case? Do they withhold trust because they are poorer? Or has a lifetime of not trusting led these individuals to lower social status?

PJ Henry, associate professor of psychology at NYU Abu Dhabi, is trying to determine the causal relationship between trust and status. He and his colleagues argue in a recent paper that an elevation of socioeconomic status can lead to an increase in a person's level of trust.

Their research also found that a decline in social status was related to a decline in social trust, which supports the idea that status determines social trust. On the other hand, they found no evidence that social trust determines status.

The authors suggest that members of "low-status groups face long-term threats to their social value" and may have had more experience being "cheated or lied to, and for practical and realistic reasons adopt a less trusting stance."

On the other hand, people with high social status are often treated better by their peers, have more opportunities in the workplace, and simply may have a greater safety net to fall back on compared to their low status peers. In this case, trust is a "luxury" that those of lower status cannot afford.

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Low-status groups face long-term threats to their social value ... and for practical and realistic reasons adopt a less trusting stance.

PJ Henry, professor of psychology

In Status We Trust

The design of the experiment allowed researchers to measure changes in both income and trust over time. Henry explained that the surveys featured data collected at three points in time (Time 1, Time 2, Time 3). In that way, he analyzed changes that took place from Time 1 to Time 2 and could predict changes from Time 2 to Time 3.

"The question is, if I increase my income from Time 1 to Time 2, will I then increase my trust from Time 2 to Time 3?," Henry said. "And that question can be pitted against the question of, if I increase my trust, will I later increase my income?"

"The statistics in the model show that only the former seems to be happening, that if your income changes, your trust will change later too."

"What's important," Henry said, "is that this suggests that good things (such as status) don't necessarily come to those who trust, but that instead trust may come from those who've had good things happen to them."

Low Income Earners Less Trusting, Study Finds
People with high social status are often treated better by their peers, have more opportunities in the workplace, and may have a greater safety net to fall back on compared to their low status peers.

The Study

Henry analyzed data collected by surveying populations in the US and UK. The US study involved 535 participants; the UK study 1,248. Income was the main measure of socioeconomic status, and the participants were asked questions that gaged their level of trust.

Importantly, these surveys were answered by the participants more than once over a period of several years. Responses to the US survey were received in 2000, 2002, and 2004, while the UK survey was given in 1998, 2003, and 2008.

"In this way we can show evidence that points toward causality even if it cannot prove causality," Henry said.

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This suggests that good things (such as status) don't necessarily come to those who trust, but that instead trust may come from those who've had good things happen to them.

PJ Henry

More to Know

His work is part of a larger project on a concept called stigma compensation theory, which is the heart of his research. Withholding trust is just one way that individuals manage social stigma. Other strategies include reacting with hostility to insults, which can often lead to aggression and even murder. For instance, countries worldwide that have higher inequality have higher murder rates. This phenomenon can't be explained by poverty alone, Henry said, and he believes that places of great inequality also have many people who feel that they are devalued by their societies. "This is one of the consequences of inequality," Henry said.

"I kind of work like an astronomer in that an astronomer can make predictions about the way things work, but has to rely on indirect evidence seen in a telescope of stars that are millions of light years away. I can do something similar too, where I speculate about what mechanisms are at play, though I can't test them directly. But with a study like this I can see evidence bearing out in the data in the way I would predict according to a theory."

Article by Matthew Corcoran, NYUAD Public Affairs