Those who trust strangers live longer lives – and those who don’t have a higher risk of early death, a new study of US citizens has found.
Researchers studied the health and attitudes of more than 25,000 Americans from all backgrounds and ethnicities between 1978 and 2010.
They found people who were distrusting, or lived in areas where distrust was common, were much more likely to die prematurely.
The stunningly strong connection between trust and mortality is not surprising, the researchers claim: trusting people socialize more and are generally less stressed – two things linked to more robust health.
But the findings are bleak given that trust levels have been tumbling in the US for the past couple of decades – a trend the researchers warn could have grave, mortal repercussions.
Trusting people socialize more and are generally less stressed – two things linked to more robust health
‘Whether or not you trust other people, including strangers, makes a difference of about 10 months in terms of life expectancy’, says Alexander Miething, researcher at Stockholm University and one of the co-authors of the study.
The study is the first population-based study to inspect the trust-mortality connection.
Since the early 90s, scores of studies have shown strong links between health and openness, faith, compassion, and trust.
But none had taken a broader look to see how this works in practice in communities.
The pooled nationally representative US General Social Survey (GSS) data, linked to the National Death Register (NDI), offered all the components to explore that.
It measured Americans’ attitudes, their levels of trust and socioeconomic conditions.
Though the respondents were interviewed only once, it offered a snapshot over a few decades to plot out a correlation.
And as expected, there was a clear connection: trust was a predictor for mortality, regardless of race or socioeconomic background.
To their surprise, the connection held even after accounting for gender – unlike in Denmark and Finland, where studies show trust is more of a game changer for men than women.
Trusting people had 17 percent lower risk of early death compared to those who were apprehensive about strangers.
The South is the hub of particularly low social cohesion.
In Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee (east south central), only 27 percent said that most people can be trusted.
That inched up a smidge to 29 percent in neighboring west south central (Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas.
The most trusting region is west north central (Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, and Missouri) where 49 percent said most people can be trusted.
That was followed by New England (where 47 percent trust strangers), and the mountainous Southwest (where 44 percent are trusting).
The results are in line with earlier research that proposed trust as a lubricant when engaging with others.
As compared to distrusters, trusters may be better able to mobilize social support from network contacts and their wider communities.
Trust is supposed to reduce friction in social interactions, and diminish psychosocial stress that contributes to health problems and shortened lives.
The advantages from high levels of trust were similar between men and women and persisted even when accounting for socioeconomic conditions such as education and income.
Given the protective effects of trust for mortality, a decline in trust (as seen across the US over past decades) may pose an underestimated public health concern.