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With Age Comes Not Only Wisdom, but Trust

A large-scale study shows faith in one’s fellow man increases as we get older.
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(Photo: Banana Republic images/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Banana Republic images/Shutterstock)

On the whole, do you trust people? Considerable research suggests fewer and fewer Americans do, and given the well-established link between trust and well-being, that’s concerning.

Fortunately, a newly published paper suggests your faith in your fellow man will very likely go up as the years go by.

“An aging world may become a more trusting world,” write Michael Poulin of the University of Buffalo and Claudia Haase of Northwestern University. Their research, based on data from 83 countries, finds individuals typically turn more trusting over the course of their lives—and confirms that this shift in attitude is, on balance, a positive thing.

“Perhaps as society becomes more cynical, our life experiences actually soften that somewhat,” Poulin says.

"In both studies, trust was positively associated with well-being across age groups, suggesting that greater trust is an important resource."

In the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, the researchers describe two complementary studies. The first featured data on nearly 200,000 people in 83 countries, which was collected between 1981 and 2007 as part of the World Values Survey.

Among other questions, participants were asked to choose which of two statements they considered truer: That “most people can be trusted,” or that one “can’t be too careful.” They also indicated their level of happiness and general life satisfaction on a one-to-10 scale.

After taking into account such factors as gender, education, and income, the researchers found “notable differences in trust. Although less than one-quarter of 20-year-olds (23 percent) agreed that “most people can be trusted,” over a third of 80-year-olds (35 percent) agreed.”

While this association between age and trust was slightly higher for females, it was found in many measures, “including trust towards one’s neighbors, people known personally, people met for the first time, people of other religions, and people from other countries.”

The second study featured 1,230 Americans who were questioned at least twice over a four-year period as part of the General Social Survey. Like participants in the World Values Survey, they were asked whether “most people can be trusted, or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people.” Unlike them, they were given the opportunity to answer “depends.”

In addition, they rated their current level of contentedness at either “not too happy,” “pretty happy,” or “very happy.”

The researchers report levels of interpersonal trust went up, on average, over the four years, regardless of income, gender, or education. They also found a correlation between higher levels of trust and happiness.

“Given the potential for highly trusting individuals to be targets of fraud and exploitation,” Poulin and Haase write, “it is reasonable to speculate that increased trust could lead to poorer, not better, well-being. However, in both studies, trust was positively associated with well-being across age groups, suggesting that greater trust is an important resource.”

A lot of research indicates that “trust within American society is on the decline," Poulin says. "These are historical shifts that occur across cohorts of people, such those born in the '60s are less trusting than those born in the '40s, and apparently those born in the '80s and later are continuing this trend.”

But he adds that, according to this research, whatever your level of trust as you begin your adult life (a metric determined in part by societal conditions), “you will nonetheless become more trusting than that by the time you reach age 70.”

In other words, cynicism—thankfully—declines with age, increasing our level of emotional comfort, and allowing us to get along a little better. The benefits of getting older are limited, to be sure, but this appears to be one of them.

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.