Why You Subconsciously Trust a Teacher More Than a Grocery Cashier

Many people have become blind to the goodness in their fellow Americans. One sociologist wants to change that.

Whom do we trust most? We asked 5,500 Americans: If you lost $100 and it was found by someone from your life on this list, do you trust that he or she would return it to you? Here are the percentages of “yes” votes for each category.Trusted ProfessionsShutterstock (All)

My wife and I were at a crowded grocery store not long ago. It was a weekday evening, cold and wet—and tense. People were carelessly blocking aisles, grumbling and snarling and cutting one another off with their carts. At one point, two women traded insults for several minutes after colliding in the freezer section.

Things got worse at the checkout line. The cashier scanned a man’s discount card, but he misread the savings on her screen as an additional charge. He decided she was acting maliciously and began to argue.

“She’s being spiteful!” he yelled. “This is un-[beeping]-believable.”

Other customers looked away as the cashier tried to reason with him. She called a manager, who escorted him to customer service. Shaken, she moved to the next customer in line.

We’ve all witnessed uncomfortable scenes like this in public places. My reaction when I see them is both personal and professional. I am a data analyst and sociologist who studies how and why people interact with one another—or why they choose not to. To me, the grocery scene was another example of how our trust in others has eroded. But it was also a teachable moment on how we can rebuild our faith—starting with just one person. Be sure to check out the most trusted brands in America.

Americans’ diminishing trust has been making news for years now. At our peak in the late 1960s, more than half (56 percent) of Americans surveyed said they thought “most people can be trusted.” By 2016, fewer than one in three agreed. Trust in our institutions—­including politics, the media, and our employers—has fallen too. The United States now trails most developed countries by global measures of trust.

How can you tell whether you are a trusting person? Try this test: If you lost $100 while running errands, would you expect someone to turn it in, or would you assume the first person to find it would take it?

These expectations represent two types of trust that social scientists study, and both are at the heart of the trust crisis. The first, more optimistic kind reflects what’s called generalized trust. It’s based on the idea that people generally share your values and would react as you would. You know that you would return a lost wallet, so you have faith that you’d get yours back. (It’s worth noting that people who trust others by default—people who experience more generalized trust—report being happier, healthier, and more resilient to life’s ups and downs.)

The second, more pessimistic view is called particularized trust, meaning you tend to trust only particular people—people who believe or act the way you do. So while you know you would return the wallet, you also know that most people aren’t like you, and therefore you wouldn’t expect to get it back.

Here is the problem: In our increasingly polarized world, roughly a quarter of Americans have particularized their trust over the past 50 years. Because of this, millions of Americans have become less willing to rely on or to help most people, and they have lost confidence in the value of public services.

Because fostering trust and elevating the national conversation have long been central to Reader’s Digest’s values, the magazine has been creating surveys over the past few years to measure the country’s mood. This year’s survey, conducted in November 2017 with the survey company Ipsos Connect, asked Americans the hypothetical question about the lost $100. It found that our trust in people across most professions in our lives, from mail carrier to lawyer to grocery clerk, sits well below 50 percent. (The most trustworthy: the family doctor.) Nearly half of us didn’t trust next-door neighbors or coworkers. Also telling was the fact that trust levels varied by income, by race and ethnicity, and even by location in the country. That has fed the crisis, too: What may restore trust among one group might not make sense for everyone else. There is no quick fix.

Still, I’m convinced that Americans can choose to trust one another again. I wanted to listen to people on the front lines of the issue—people out there trying to make a difference—so I began a podcast in 2014 called The Plural of You (pluralofyou.org), for which I’ve interviewed dozens of trusting individuals about what motivates them.

One of the most impressive people I’ve met is Pardeep Kaleka of Milwaukee. Kaleka’s father founded the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in nearby Oak Creek. On August 5, 2012, a white supremacist shot and killed six members at the temple, wounded four others, and then turned his gun on himself. Kaleka’s father was among the dead.

Kaleka and the congregation could have easily shut out the world after the incident. Instead, they founded Serve 2 Unite (serve2unite.org), a nonprofit that conducts talks and workshops on trust and unity in schools and communities across the country.

“We know the shooter wanted us to be isolated and miserable,” Kaleka told me. “To battle that, we needed to get out into the broader community.”

In other words, we need to learn to talk to one another, even in uncomfortable circumstances—or, perhaps, especially then.

Back at the grocery store, my wife and I reached our flustered ­cashier. I grabbed a bottle of water from a nearby cooler and handed it to her. We learned her name was Beth.

“We felt bad about how that man treated you and wanted to buy this for you,” I said.

Beth’s face lit up, and we talked as she scanned our items. She told us she had been working that evening through severe foot pain and would be having surgery later that week.

We wished her well in her recovery, and she thanked us as we left.

Those are the balancing acts, the moments of countering social and emotional pain with healing, that will add up to restore trust across the United States. You can start that pattern in someone else’s life, even in a place as ordinary as the neighborhood grocery store.

To learn more about the demographic patterns for the poll described above, go here.

Joe McKendry for Reader's Digest

Josh C. Morgan is a data analyst and sociologist living in Baltimore. He also hosts the podcast, The Plural of You.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest