The Relationship Between Generalized Trust and Intelligence

Generalized trust refers to trust in other members of society. In large social surveys, it is assessed with the question, “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people?” Notwithstanding the question’s simplicity, generalized trust is correlated with a large number of important variables. At the macro-level, countries with higher generalized trust experience faster economic growth (Algan and Cahuc, 2010; Bjornskov, 2012) and have more efficient public institutions (Putnam, 1993; Tabellini, 2008). At the micro-level, individuals with higher generalized trust report better health (Giordano et al., 2012) and claim to be happier with their lives over all (Helliwell and Wang, 2011).

In a paper just published in PLoS ONE, Francesco Billari and I report a strong association between generalized trust and intelligence, based on data from a large, nationally representative sample of Americans. This finding replicates several previous studies (including one we were not aware of when we wrote our paper). Specifically, Sturgis et al. (2010) found an association between generalized trust and intelligence in the U.K., Hooghe et al. (2012) found one in the Netherlands, and Oskarsson et al. (2012) found one in Sweden.

Why is generalized trust associated with intelligence? There seem to be at least two related explanations (Yamagishi, 2001). First, if individuals with higher intelligence are better at identifying untrustworthy people, they should tend to have fewer relationships in which their trust is betrayed. And second, if individuals with higher intelligence are better at identifying situations where any person would be unlikely to reciprocate trust, they should tend to have their trust betrayed less often. We were unable to test these two hypotheses in our paper. However, Yamagishi et al. (1999) have provided some experimental evidence for them.

The finding that generalized trust is associated with intelligence raises the possibility that previous studies have over-estimated the effect of generalized trust on micro-level outcomes such as health and happiness. For example, individuals who trust others might only report better health and greater happiness because they tend to be more intelligent. However, we found no evidence for this. In particular, the effects of trust on self-rated health and happiness did not decrease after we controlled for intelligence. This suggests that trust really is a valuable social resource, and is not simply a proxy for intelligence.


 -  Algan, Y., Cahuc, P. (2010). Inherited trust and growth. American Economic Review, 100: 2060-2092.

-  Bjornskov, C. (2012) How does social trust affect economic growth? Southern Economic Journal, 78: 1346-1368.

- Carl, N., Billari, F. C. (2014). Generalized trust and intelligence in the United States. PLoS ONE.

- Giordano, G., Bjork J., Lindstrom, M. (2012). Social capital and self-rated health – a study of temporal (causal) relationships. Social Science and Medicine, 75: 340-348.

- Helliwell, J., Wang, S. (2011). Trust and wellbeing. International Journal of Wellbeing, 1: 42-78.

- Hooghe, M., Marien, S., de Vroome, T. (2012) The cognitive basis of trust. The relation between education, cognitive ability, and generalized and political trust. Intelligence, 40: 604-613.

- Putnam, R. (1993). Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

- Oskarsson, S., Dawes, C., Johannesson, M., Magnusson, P. K. E. (2012). The Genetic Origins of the Relationship between Psychological Traits and Trust. Twin Research and Human Genetics, 15: 21-33.

- Sturgis, P., Read, S., Allum, N. (2010) Does intelligence foster generalized trust? An empirical test using the UK birth cohort studies. Intelligence, 38: 45-54.

-  Tabellini, G. (2008). Presidential address: institutions and culture. Journal of the European Economic Association, 6: 255-294.

- Yamagishi, T., Kikuchi, M., Kosugi, M. (1999). Trust, Gullibility and Social Intelligence. Asian Journal of Social Psychology, 2: 145-161.

- Yamagishi, T. (2001). Trust as a form of social intelligence. In: Cook K editor. Trust in Society. Russell Sage Foundation, New York.


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Noah Carl

About Noah Carl

Noah is a doctoral candidate in Sociology at the University of Oxford. He was born and grew up in Cambridge, England. He received a BA in Human Sciences and an MSc in Sociology from the University of Oxford. His research focuses on the correlates of beliefs and attitudes.

2 thoughts on “The Relationship Between Generalized Trust and Intelligence

  1. Intelligence is sometimes treated as an innate exogenous characteristic, but measures of it at least have a social component. To what extent might it be possible that people who learn an orientation toward generalized trust have more success in maximizing their potential for “intelligence” as measured by external tests? Treating intelligence as merely a filter for excluding untrustworthy others from interactions may not capture deeper determinants of generalized trust, which could begin with parent-child interactions early in life. These interactions also influence measured intelligence.

    • Thanks for the question. If I understand correctly, you are arguing that generalized trust might cause intelligence, rather than the other way around. This is possible, though in my opinion it is quite implausible. We found (Table 2) that the effect of verbal ability on trust remained large and significant after controlling for several measures of family background, as well as individual characteristics. However, it is possible we did not pick up some aspect of socialisation related to the development of trust. In addition, studies typically find that, by adulthood, the proportion of variance in intelligence attributable to shared environment is quite small, whereas the proportion attributable to additive genetic factors is large.

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