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Are Cell Phones to Blame for Our Plummeting Levels of Trust?

New research presents evidence supporting that idea.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty Images)

Increasingly, Americans don’t trust one another. Back in 1972, 46 percent of us expressed the belief that most people can be trusted; that figure dropped to 32 percent in 2012.

The negative ramifications of this mutual suspicion are obvious: Trust has been linked to increased levels of health and happiness. But why is it happening? Newly published research points to a surprising possible culprit: our smartphones.

Results from a large national study reveal “the more people relied on their cell phones for information, the less they trusted strangers, neighbors, and people from other religions and nationalities,” psychologists Kostadin Kushlev of the University of Virginia and Jason Proulx of the University of British Columbia write in the online journal PLoS One.

While the data does not prove a causal relationship between the two phenomena, the researchers suspect mobile phones are increasingly “obviating the need to rely on others.” There’s no need to ask a stranger for directions if you can get them on your phone. That means there are fewer opportunities to connect with one another and establish trust.

The researchers used data from 2,232 Americans (with a median age of 46) taken from Wave Six of the World Values Survey. Participants were asked how frequently they relied on various sources to obtain information, on a scale of one (daily) to five (never). Besides mobile phones, these included newspapers, magazines, television and radio newscasts, email, the Internet, and “familiar others/colleagues.”

There’s no need to ask a stranger for directions if you can get them on your phone.

They also indicated how much they trusted members of various groups, including “their family, neighborhood, people they know personally, people they were meeting for the first time, people of other religions, and people of other nationalities.” For each, they estimated their level of trust on a scale of one (completely) to four (not at all).

The researchers found the more people relied on their mobile phones for information, the less they trusted all of the aforementioned groups, except for family members and others they know well.

“In contrast, obtaining information through any other method — including TV, radio, newspapers, and even the Internet more broadly — predicted higher trust in those groups,” they write.

It’s not hard to imagine why. It’s not exactly easy to exchange mutual smiles with a stranger you pass on the street when one or both of you is laser-focused on your mobile device.

“Even brief, casual social interactions with strangers and acquaintances can foster our sense of connection with others,” the researchers write. “From this perspective, relying on mobile phones for information may be uniquely associated with lower trust in people outside of our close social circles of friends and family.”

Granted, that’s just a thesis at this point. But it makes intuitive sense, and the researchers note their results could not be explained by demographic differences.

In their words, they have given us “an intriguing first glimpse into the possible unforeseen costs of convenient information access for the social lubricant of society — our sense of trust in one another.”