Why Trust Matters

Benjamin Ho, Associate Professor of Economics, Vassar College

There was a lot to fear in 2020. Fear of illness, fear of political upheavals, fear of social injustices. But what about fear itself? In particular, how did all the fear in 2020 affect how much we trust? That was the question my co-authors Baran Han, Inbok Rhee, Chrysostomos Tabakis and myself sought to address in an online experiment.

Trust matters because trust is the invisible bond that holds society together. In my new book, Why Trust Matters: an Economist’s Guide to the Ties that Bind Us, I argue that the history of human civilization is really the story of how we learned to trust. We live in a society that is able to achieve great things because of the collective efforts of ever larger and more diverse groups of people. A key part of building a complex society has been the need to extend the circle of whom we trust from those in our families and immediate neighbors to those across the country and beyond.

Consequently my co-authors and I were concerned about what happens to trust during a time when we have so much to fear. In particular, we were motivated by the words of a great philosopher:

“Fear is the path to the dark side.

Fear leads to anger.

Anger leads to hate.

Hate leads to suffering.”

Yoda, 1999

To that end, we ran an experiment in the Fall of 2021 during the height of the pandemic. We conducted an online survey with a representative sample of 6,000 South Koreans. Of course, the South Korean context is different from elsewhere, including America, but within South Korea exist similar issues of prejudice against outsiders (in particular the Chinese), and similar controversies of conservative US commentators referring to Covid-19 as the “China virus”. We wanted to measure how attitudes toward outsiders (like refugees, or the Chinese, or foreign workers) responded to an autobiographical emotional memory task where one group was asked to recall times when they felt fear (the treatment), and another group was asked to recall times when they felt happiness (the control). We then measured people’s trust in outsiders through survey questions like “Would you want [refugees/foreign workers/Chinese immigrants] as neighbors?” and by tracking their donation decisions to groups that supported foreign workers and multi-ethnic households.

What we found was that people in our treatment group did report feeling more afraid, and that people who reported more fear also reported more distrust of outsiders, but to our surprise, the treatment group that was induced to feel fear as a group was actually more trusting of outsiders than the control group that was induced to think about happy times.

To explain, we found multiple studies that show that those who hold conservative values respond more to fearful stimuli. In one, liberal and conservative subjects were scanned in an MRI machine while viewing disturbing images. The amygdala in the brains of conservatives responded more compared to those in liberals. Conservatives also tend to be more wary of outsiders. In other words, there is a correlation between people who report being afraid and those who tend to be less trusting of outsiders, but that relationship was due to the predispositions of those with conservative values. It isn’t causal.

Instead, we found that the causal effect on both conservatives and liberal to an external inducement of fear is more trust of outsiders. Fear brings people together.

To validate the results of our experiment we looked at how attitudes in South Korea have changed from before the pandemic. We found that age groups who reported the most feelings of fear during the pandemic (those in their 30’s) also had the greatest increase in acceptance of outsiders relative to those with the least reported fear (those in their 60’s and beyond)—interestingly, the same pattern of high fear in the 30’s and low fear in the 60’s has been reported in studies around the world. Similarly, provinces that experienced the most fear had the greatest increase in trust while provinces that experienced the least fear had the smallest increases.

Fear of Covid-19 is more likely to bring us together, than to divide us. Of course, the context of our experiment is limited to one country, and the US has other political forces that are at odds with the tendencies we saw here. But I hope our findings serve as a reminder of all the ways the world came together to face an external threat.

We tend to focus on what divides us, yet 2020 was the year when Spanish and Korean language hits topped US pop charts, when people worldwide clapped collectively to celebrate essential workers, when charitable giving increased to record levels. While there was much to fear in 2020, our study suggests that how we respond to fear can give us hope about the future.

Ben Ho is a former White House lead energy economist, and author of the new book, Why Trust Matters: an Economist’s Guide to the Ties that Bind US