The Roots of Distrust

In 2009, I wrote a book called Distrust, American Style. The impetus for that book was publication–and widespread discussion–of a study in which Robert Putnam found that neighborhoods with greater diversity had higher levels of social distrust, and concluded that diversity–living among people who looked or talked or prayed differently– caused discomfort and distrust.

I didn’t disagree with his basic facts–his finding that more diverse populations demonstrated higher levels of distrust–but I strongly disagreed with the conclusions he drew from those facts. Now, seven years later, researchers from Princeton and NYU have weighed in on my side of the debate. As they explained in a recent New York Times Op-Ed,

Our research reveals that even in the short term, diversity is not to blame. We independently analyzed the same data set Professor Putnam used, and we demonstrate that disadvantage, not diversity, is responsible for distrust.

At first glance, our results resemble those of previous studies: People in more diverse communities report lower levels of trust. Scholars and columnists alike have taken this to mean that diversity reduces trust, but we argue that this interpretation is flawed.

My own analysis was somewhat different, but consistent with the results of this new research. I offered two alternative interpretations of Putnam’s research; in the one most congruent with the conclusions of the Princeton/NYU scholars, I relied upon a body of  research that correlated economic and personal insecurity with higher levels of interpersonal distrust.

If you live in a neighborhood where crime is rampant and police presence infrequent, if you make minimum wage, have no job security and no access to health insurance, you are not likely to be a trusting individual. You are also more likely to live in a diverse neighborhood.

In Distrust, American Style I went further. I pointed to the fact that–thanks to the Internet and social media–Americans are more aware than ever of untrustworthy behaviors of our common social institutions. When people see unethical and unsavory behaviors by big businesses, major-league sports, and various elected officials–when even the Catholic Church is found to have covered up molestation of young people–it’s not surprising that citizens feel betrayed and grow cynical, or that generalized trust declines.

In the years since I published Distrust, that latter problem has been exacerbated by the “wild west” environment of social media, where all manner of allegations and accusations of wrongdoing–many invented out of whole cloth– feed what seems to be a national paranoia.

Blaming low levels of trust on the fact that our neighbor is a different color or religion is easy, and it may comfort those for whom diversity is experienced as threatening, but it is an unfortunate and unhelpful diversion from more in-depth analysis.

As any doctor will tell you, you can’t prescribe the right medicine if you haven’t accurately diagnosed the disease.

Trying to make America less diverse by deporting immigrants–the “Trumpian” solution–is not only fantasy. It is the wrong medicine. It not only won’t restore social trust, it will increase paranoia.

Strengthening the social safety net to ameliorate insecurity, on the other hand, will go a long way toward calming the anxiety that is really at the root of our social suspicion.


  1. Interesting follow-up. Enjoyed the book when it came out, and the points seem even more relevant now.

  2. I have mentioned before that the vacant homes in my small neighborhood have filled up over the past three years or so; primarily with Blacks and Hispanics. I have tried to be friendly, not pushy, but it is difficult due to my deafness. I don’t want to be all up in their business and don’t want them in mine; just neighborly-friendly, recognize faces and speak when we pass. After my earlier comments, someone responded holding a neighborhood cookout – might be a good idea if they spoke when passing on the sidewalk. Right now I have one of two “Bernie 2016” yard signs among five “Trump” signs. Two earlier placed “Trump” signs disappeared; no idea why and because the owners ignore me when I walk by and wave, so I will never know.

    This is not personal rambling that has nothing to do with today’s blog topic. If we cannot communicate on any level with people living on our own streets; how can we know what causes “The Roots of Distrust” on any level. Personally; I am getting tired of being ignored when I smile and wave. One young Black MAN deliberately threw a basketball at my head from across the street, I just laughed and said, “You are no Michael Jordan.” and walked on. He and the other young men were visiting neighbors two streets over who had been cordial.

    I do not fear or distrust on a racial basis, and I learned long ago that women can be as threatening as men. The white man who attacked, permanently injured and robbed me on my driveway at 11:00 in the morning more than two years ago finally had his sentencing hearing yesterday. I gave my Victim Impact Statement; tried to maintain my cool to relay all facts but did yell at him and call him a coward. He received 46 years total, 25 years in DOC, 21 years suspended with 12 years on probation. When he came up my driveway talking to me, I didn’t feel safe because he was white but because it was 11:00 in the morning and my neighbors were on the sidewalk across the street. There were those friends who asked if my attacker was Black, an assumption THEY made.

    Racism and bigotry will always be with us; we must realize this and keep it under control by using common sense. But the distrust is NOT one-sided and it runs deep; it is not only in my neighborhood but it is now a large part of the presidential campaign and is aimed at many groups of people. I had so hoped we in this county had taken a major step to combat racism when we elected President Obama; that worked in the opposite direction at the top political levels where the power is. But…it still must begin on our own streets in our own neighborhoods.

  3. “Strengthening the social safety net to ameliorate insecurity, on the other hand, will go a long way toward calming the anxiety that is really at the root of our social suspicion.”

    YES!!! Compassion and kindness goes a long way towards making people feel that they matter.

    Far too many people in our country live in constant fear that the rug can be pulled out from under their feet at any moment by those with the power to do so. The corporate mindset of existing only to reward the stock holders and the C-Suite members has ruined many many lives.

  4. JoAnn, I am glad to hear that your case was finally heard in court and hope that you feel it was adequately resolved. I do not envy you living in such an unfriendly neighborhood. I live in a very rural area where everyone still waves and says Hello to everyone else, even though they may be complete strangers.

  5. Ivy league schools may agree with you , but being Ivy League DISTROYS their credibility.
    THOSE schools turn out Luciferians like George Bush , and John Kerry.
    Sheila , the problem is that there ar Caucasians who are NOT true humanbeings , and they are the one’s responsible for all the social problems in this NEW ATLANTIS . Particularly those members of the FRATERNAL ORDER OF POLICE , and this generation of our Armed Forces. Their screening process INSURES that only DERANGED SOCIALPATHS are hired / recruited .
    America’s problems have ALWAYS been CAUCASIAN in origin.
    Just look at how ALL of you have dealt with us – Native Americans . That includes the BLACK people that Columbus encountered on Oct. 12 , 1492.
    The problem is that the original explores of the western hemisphere were all Freemasons. And yes , they always knew that this world is round . The Skull and Bones society IS a branch of the WHITE Lodge. And guess what – the F.O.P. is a branch of said White Lodge , and our judicial system is controlled by the Mason’s.
    Hard to believe that our high school history books omitted so many truths about our history , huh ?

  6. Even in my relatively well-off neighborhood, distrust of government and institutions is rampant. It might have something to do with the epistemic closure that was the topic a couple of days ago. They listen to their “news sources” and believe their government is out to get them, or their guns, or whatever they have that they assign value to. Just keep smiling and saying hello.

  7. I believe that the major problem in this country, is our religious interpretations of the Bible. Our Interpretations and denominations fuel our distrust. The Bible is a book on relationship (particularly the New Testament) not religion and rituals. I think religious people have it twisted and use it to justify their own agendas causing confusion, separating people. I believe it’s God’s thoughts and feelings to us into a relationship that was previously lost…
    I am a Preacher, but I preach relationship along with right and wrong, with the encouraging love it calls for.

  8. To all,

    I hope this might further help in understanding our distrust of each other. It’s from “The White Flag Principle: How to Lose a War and Why” by Shimon Tzabar, Simon & Shuster, New York, 1972:

    “The role and function of social conflict is an extensive field of study. The results may be summed up as follows: there are two distinct patterns of conflict distribution. One binds society and the other disunites it. The pattern of conflicts that unite society is that which is distributed randomly and forms a MATRIX. In other words, each conflict is so distributed among the population that the people that are grouped together in one conflict are not grouped together in another. “We might suppose,” says Dahrendorf, “that in a country there are three dominant types of social conflict: conflict of the class type, conflict between town and country, and conflict between Protestants and Catholics. It is, of course, conceivable that these lines of conflict cut across each other in a random fashion, so that, e.g., there are as many Protestants among the ruling groups of the State as there are Catholics and as many townpeople in their denomination as there are country-people.”

    “This is the type of conflict pattern that unites society. The more numerous the conflicts and the more random their distribution, the stronger the MATRIX that unites that society.”

    “If, on the other hand, we have conflicts that are so distributed that the same people in one conflict group are also members in another conflict group, then the pattern is not a MATRIX but a SPLIT. We can imagine a society with the same types of conflicts as in the above example [the author is using as an example the Protestant-Catholic conflict in Northern Ireland], but they are distributed in such a way that all the Protestants belong to the ruling class and they are all town dwellers. In this case, there will be a split between the two groups. One group will consist of Protestant-urban-rulers and the other of Catholic-countrymen-ruled. “A society. . . . “says Edward Alsworth Ross, “which is ridden by a dozen oppositions along lines running in every direction may actually be in less danger of being torn with violence or falling to pieces than one split just along one line.”

    “If we have a united society [which we don’t have in the U.S. ] it means that we have conflicts of the matrix type. In order to disunite our society we have to change the matrix conflict into split conflicts [like in the U.S. by introducing WEDGE issues such as abortion etc.]”

    “If the dominant conflict is not the class but the religious conflict, the best way to intensify it is by adopting one of the religions as the official state religion [theocracy] and outlawing the others. If, for one or other reason, it is impossible to outlaw a religion, DISCRIMINATION will also do. In religious and racial conflicts, political assassination is of great help. It is difficult to account for the sharp intensification of the racial conflict in recent years in the United States without reference to the assassinations of the Kennedys, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King. Similarly, the assassination of Tom Mboya in Kenya in 1970 has intensified the tribal conflict between the Lau and the Kikuyu.”

    “While the dominant conflict is intensified we start to re-arrange all the other conflict so that they are SUPERIMPOSED on one another.”

    “It can be seen that the social conflict split is not only a powerful tool to disunite a society. It can be—–if carried to the extreme—–a defeat in itself. An explosion of a conflict SPLIT makes a national [race]war obsolete since it makes society its own worst enemy. In this case, the defeat is assured whichever side wins.” pages 49-51

    Good Luck! We all need it.

  9. Marv, what country in the world does has a united society? Don’t make it sound like we are an evil nation just because WE don’t have a united society. AgingLGirl has decided to live abroad but I (87 years old) have been a few places in the world and I’ll take the United States over any of them.

  10. Irvin,

    Thanks. Let me make it clear. I don’t think we’re an EVIL nation. However, on this point, we probably differ . . . . I think we have a very good chance of becoming one.

  11. Fascinating discussion…I recall in one of our classes Sheila mentioned to us ‘younger generation’ how much more cynical we were at our age….I’m Gen X…high divorce rates impacted most of my peers and the the scandals with the Catholic churches, etc…so I know most of my peers have a high level of distrust and are quite cynical.

    I know for me if I witnessed any kindness or someone speaking the truth I am more shocked by that than the hideous behaviors of people. I
    On Joann’s point, I didn’t really engage with my neighbors too much, I didn’t want them in my business or know too much. I also lived in a working class neighborhood with a HOA. I hate HOAS as they seem to be used as a vessel that can be used against other neighbors…aiding in putting people against each other and so I felt it safer to stay out of the subdivision drama. I live out in the country and I love it…we wave to each other but no one in my business.

  12. Enjoy the day. I’m going to spend the rest of my day finishing Sheila’s VERY IMPORTANT book….”Distrust, American Style.” It’s available on Amazon Kindle.

  13. I have been safe all of my life. Never owned a gun, am sloppy about locking doors, greet every stranger like a friend, generally trust people to an extreme unless they demonstrate that they’re not worthy.

    That has nothing to do with what we normally consider diversity. I’ve been around many kinds of others in many kinds of situations and still haven’t felt unsafe.

    Will that change some dark and stormy night? I don’t know, I can’t predict the future.

    Of course I should also point out that I don’t threaten people either. In fact studying diversity is my hobby as an amateur anthropologist.

    What then am I to make of the evening news?

    I haven’t done the science that Sheila and her cohorts have done so have no data to support any conclusion but it seems to me and for me that the safety problem that many fear is entertainment based not reality based.

    What would our world be like without an entertainment dispenser in our living and bed rooms and now even occasionally kitchens, baths, patios and OMG, in our pockets?

    We’ve been brainwashed into submission. Nothing good can come of that.

  14. JoAnn, thank you for that update. I’m glad he’s in jail. I hope you have some satisfaction but I’m sure, you never will. Hugs.

  15. RN and Nancy,

    Like you I grew up in a rural area on a farm, and to this day, I wave at anybody and everybody including strangers. Tracing the US Census demographic data for my home county, I can chart that the racial diversity has remained relatively static from the time I was born in 1946 until today with approximately 80% white and 20% black. With only 14,000 residents, it’s not uncommon for folks to know just about everyone, black and white, and to know their parents and maybe their grandparents.

    I can’t say there’s perfect harmony or unity in my home county, but I can say there’s more trust than distrust among the residents.

    Perhaps the only remaining communities with true unity are small tribal communities somewhere in the rainforests of South America.

  16. At some point in the distant past humans diverged off the the primate tree. We carried those traits and behaviors forward that helped us survive in a prey vs predator world or red in claw red in tooth. Groups gave the individual a sense of security but it came at a price. Cooperation existed within the group to an extent as dominance within group was also in play, Alpha male vs other males. Competition between different groups over turf turns violent.
    Our superior intellect gave us the great artists, scientists, etc. Our superior intellect also gave us the the ability to develop through the ages weapons of destruction that we have demonstrated a willingness to use.
    We have managed to define and redefine through the ages what group and sub-group we belong to, by race, ethnic background, economic status, and religion. Old ethnic and religious grudges carry on as witnessed during the break-up of Yugoslavia and Northern Ireland is still divided.
    Humanity has struggled to find solutions. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”

  17. One model that others might find useful is that we are all both individuals, free will and all of that, and victims/beneficiaries of culture: how we observe others like us behaving.

    Being an individual is harder, it take effort, whereas reenacting is effortless, but sometimes worth it.

    When fight or flight rises up it often (not always) is a cultural reaction.

    Question it.

  18. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”

    Every day of the week; thanks Louie

    AgingLGrl; thank you for your kind thoughts.

  19. Consider that humans and dogs have more in common than we’d like to admit. Both are social animals, both tend to live in groups/packs, and both function more efficiently and productively when there’s an alpha leader.

    If dogs have private thoughts, I’m thinking their thoughts are similar to our private human thoughts as in, “Who’s in charge, anyway?”

  20. You are SO on target about this. Decades ago I read a study about what happens when mice are placed into more and more crowded conditions. They became more territorial, less likely to share and accommodate others (be neighborly), and more aggressive as they felt more need to protect a little space for themselves. By contrast, the mice with more space of their own generally got along well with others.

    School research has shown time and again that kids from richer families have higher test scores. My former boss would have loved your column today. He said the way to raise test scores was obvious — make all kids rich.

  21. Louie,

    As you wrote, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”

    That quote sounds seriously like a clarion call for individual and personal responsibility.

  22. I apologize for an accidentally deleting the first sentence to the 2nd paragraph above which was that “Poverty manifests itself in many ways.”

  23. @Nancy Papas,

    Your quoted research re: the adverse impact on children growing up in high-density population areas with little personal space does not speak well for those civic groups encouraging young families with school-aged children to purchase or to rent properties in the Downtown Indianapolis area.

  24. Nancy, “mice are placed into more and more crowded conditions. They became more territorial, less likely to share and accommodate others (be neighborly), and more aggressive as they felt more need to protect a little space for themselves. ”

    Mice and men notice when those around them act “more aggressive” and replicate that behavior.

  25. A large amount of distrust may be because people don’t know people of the opposite race intimately. By “intimately” I mean they didn’t grow up around black people or around white people so they have no knowledge of their norms or the other race’s routine behavior.

    Being a black female who grew up in the inner city of Columbus, OH, from 7th grade on all of my formal education has been in predominately white schools (and I mean WHITE, 9 blacks in a school population of 300 or more in 7th grade) I know what the norms are of people not in my race. I also grew up in an environment of people aren’t “bad” until they show you they are, my socio-economic level was middle class and both of my parents PUSHED me and made it clear that my education and achievement was very important. Yes, I had a few racist situations from 7th to 12th grade but for the most part all most of my classmates were great people and I continue to be Facebook friends with many of them. All of my friends know I dislike or distrust people because of what they do, not the color of their skin.

    Living in Indianapolis for over 30 years I still see the great divide. There isn’t a lot of cultural mixing of the races and many neighborhoods continue to be very segregated. I still can go to many places in the Indianapolis area and be the only black person in the group. Doesn’t bother me, but people need to get out of their comfort zone and make an effort to be more diverse. Getting to know people not of your race and I mean really getting to know other people will bring down that wall of distrust.

  26. This discussion reminds me of an incident that happened a few years ago. I was sitting on the stoop in front of my son’s brownstone in Bedford-Stuyvesant when an elderly Black man walked by and asked me if I was afraid. When I told him “no,” he responded, “I would be if I were in Bensonhurst.”

  27. Nancy…I appreciate your information on the mice. I sat on our town’s zoning board and I kept commenting disgust on how developers were wanting to put homes onto postage stamp lots. I always said that life has become so stressful and that we are inundated all day with crap disguised as information that most people want to come home to some space. I said in a meeting that I should not have to coordinate my child’s swing set with the neighbors so that their swings would not get tangled in mid-flight. (small lots) Not to mention so many kids ended up playing in the street due to small lots. I always said people need some breathing room to help with the tensions and stress they have all day. I also felt that maybe it was a personal preference, years of working in psychiatry and attracting every personality disorder leaves ‘one’ exhausted. I maybe similar to Pete I like to smile and say ‘hello’…my husband complains I make too much eye contact

    BSH…that is a joke that they want families with children to live downtown. I loved eating at places downtown but very few could allow children as some of the spaces were small and a child could see the bar and we can not have that in Indiana. We loved Sahm’s for the good food and free parking but after years of going there we were told that per Excise the 1/2 wall was not tall enough to hide the bar and so children were no longer allowed to sit at the back lower tables against the wall and so you would have to eat outside.

  28. Thanks for the recommendation Ned. I can’t wait to see how he measures the decline of the work ethic in Fishtown and especially the why for it.

  29. Comment back to BSH – Louie,
    As you wrote, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”
    That quote sounds seriously like a clarion call for individual and personal responsibility

    I suppose it is about personal responsibility. Sometimes maybe many times our destiny is out of our control. Since it is nearly Memorial Day, that US Soldier that hit the beach in France in WW 2, his destiny was out of his control. Did the German with the machine gun see him, fire the MG and miss or hit him??

    The college I went to assigned me to certain dorm and a certain floor, a change in that assignment and I do not meet my future wife, or was it destiny I would meet her??? I guess certain events maybe out of our control, but our reactions to them are not.

  30. Great description by Howard Dean concerning Trump’s noise: Trump’s speech is WORD SALAD! Gosh! I love that! It’s so very appropriate!

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