Intelligent People Are More Inclined to Trust Others

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Seven ways that trust benefits both individuals and society as a whole.

Intelligent people are more likely to trust others, according to a new analysis of US public opinion poll data.

This may be because more intelligent people are better judges of character.

The study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, analysed data from the ‘General Social Survey’, which asks a nationally representative sample of Americans about their attitudes and characteristics (Carl & Billari, 2014).

The researchers focused on the idea of generalised trust: not trust of close friends and family, but of other unknown members of society.

People were asked:

“Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people?”

They found that people who were more trusting were also happier and had higher levels of physical health.

It also emerged that trust was not just a proxy for intelligence: in other words intelligence could not explain the links between either trust and health or trust and happiness.

The study’s lead author, Noah Carl of Oxford University, said:

“Intelligence is shown to be linked with trusting others, even after taking into account factors like marital status, education and income.

This finding supports what other researchers have argued, namely that being a good judge of character is a distinct part of human intelligence which evolved through natural selection.”

It’s smart to trust

The new research chimes with a number of established findings about the link between trust at the individual and societal level.

Previous research has found that people who are more trusting are:

  • More likely to start a business.
  • More likely to do voluntary work.
  • Happier with their lives.
  • Have better physical health.

In addition, societies which have higher levels of generalised trust overall also have:

  • Public institutions which are more efficient.
  • Higher levels of social capital.
  • Greater economic growth.

The study’s coauthor, Professor Francesco Billari, said:

“People who trust others seem to report better health and greater happiness.

The study of social trust therefore has wider implications in public health, governmental policy and private charity, and there are good reasons to think that governments, religious groups and other civic organizations should try to cultivate more trust in society.”

Image credit: Leo Grübler

About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 18 March 2014

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