Dissecting trust in the other

A Danish study indicates that more multiethnic neighbourhoods have lower levels of social trust. But despite increasing levels of immigration, trust in Denmark is at its highest in 30 years

To test how native Danes coexist with foreigners in residential areas, two researchers, from The University of Copenhagen and Aarhus University, conducted a study on how their social trust is affected by ethnic diversity. The result: Danes living among more immigrants had lower levels of social trust.

“Understanding social trust is absolutely essential – it deeply influences the way we act and how we contribute to society,” explained professor Peter Thisted Dinesen. “It can also greatly impact how well a state functions including its’ economic growth, the stability and efficiency of a democratic government, and overall social cohesion.”

He added: “Considering previous findings, we weren’t exactly surprised, but it’s only one small part of a very complex issue.”

Trust in Denmark
Dinesen and professor Kim Mannemar Sønderskov made the discovery after analysing nationally representative survey data merged with detailed individual-level data from the national Danish registers.

“On a global scale the data we have available in Denmark is quite unique. It allows us to more accurately assess the ongoing debate about the impacts of ethnic diversity in a local context,” said Dinesen.

The duo first used responses from native Danish participants who took part in the European Social Survey (ESS) – an academically driven cross-national questionnaire that monitors the changing attitudes and values across Europe.

The survey revealed that respondents who were generally less trustful of others tended to live around more immigrants, as well as have immigrants of more types of ethnicities present in their neighbourhoods.

Why don’t we trust the foreigners?
According to Statistics Denmark, there are approximately 676,000 immigrants currently residing in Denmark, making up around 12 percent of the population. While the survey identified the universal effect across almost all Danish neighborhoods, Dinesen and Sønderskov could not identify exactly why it occurred with the data at hand.

“Our theoretical argument is that we know people use local experiences to extrapolate their perspectives as to whether people in general can be trusted or not. Several studies report a general human tendency to evaluate members of other ethnic groups as less trustworthy compared to ‘in-group’ members,” explains Dinesen.

“It’s also known that humans are better at inferring other peoples’ thoughts, intentions and feelings if the person belongs to their own ethnic group – this is also a crucial component in building trust and is also likely to increase empathy.”

According to various studies, we can also be physically programmed to have a negative reaction to other races or cultures. The duos research also linked to cardiovascular and skin conductance tests, where participating individuals displayed strong physical signs of distress or fear when encountering others of a different ethnic background.

“We can have these feelings towards other ethnicities even without any prior knowledge or exposure,” said Dinesen. “It is, most likely, partly innate and partly socialised.

While a lack of faith in other people may seem like a minor issue, declining social trust can raise severe problems for any society according to Dinesen.

“Trust promotes cooperation and collective action to solve problems for ‘the common good’. For example, people tend to live and act more pro-environmentally when they trust others and feel as though their peers would do the same,” he explained.

“If they don’t, then no one wants to be the only sucker making an effort to live sustainably, which in the aggregate means that society has to face greater environmental issues and the costs associated with addressing them.”

Nordics lead on trust scale
Racial, ethnic, and religious tensions exist all around the world and many nations have even collapsed under their weight. But according to Dinesen, the negative impact of local ethnic diversity on trust is only one part of the puzzle.

Another recent study conducted by Dinesen and Sønderskov has confirmed that trust in Denmark is at its highest in over 30 years.

“When measured in 1979, a number of surveys held in Denmark indicated that the national level of social trust was around 50 percent, and when measured in 2009 through the same channels, it was closer to around 80 percent,” said Dinesen. “In the same period, ethnic diversity in Denmark has increased by about three-fold, and the share of all immigrants has increased by about six-fold.”

“This is an observation unique to Denmark. More generally, together with the other Nordic countries, Denmark is the country in the world with the highest level of trust,” he added.

In order to improve social trust in society, Dinesen argues that we should look towards improving institutions guarding our everyday life.

“While we should obviously take the negative consequences of ethnic diversity for trust seriously, we should not lose sight of other factors – most importantly education at the individual level and institutional quality at the societal level – which matter more for people’s social trust,” he said. M



By Lesley Price

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