University of Maryland   Eric M. Uslaner
  The Moral Foundations of Trust

Published in Chinese by China Social Sciences Press (2007) and named "Excellent Imported Book of Social Science" by the Chinese Association of Publishers, 2008 and listed as a Modern Classic of Humanities by Fudan University and Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, 2008


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Translated into Chinese and published by Cambridge University Press in collaboration with Chinese Social Sciences!


  Generalized trust has declined in the United States from 58% in 1960 to 34% in 2003.  The United States is a more conflictual society.  We argue more, volunteer less, and give less of our income to charity.  Both in the United States and across nations, the most important factor shaping trust is economic inequality.

The more inequality, the less trust.


My most widely cited work is The Moral Foundations of Trust, published by  Cambridge University Press. Click here to order from Cambridge University Press or from .  On January 29, 2010 it was the subject of the "Morning Feature" on Daily Kos:

Morning Feature: Are you a trusting soul? Probably, generally, but not particularly


Wed Jul 28, 2010 at 04:26:04 AM PDT

How did you get to be such a trusting soul?

What, you don't consider yourself the trusting type? You're suspicious of everyone? Well, maybe, in some cases. But I doubt it. Not compared to other folks on the spectrum of politics and trust.

Odds are you have a basic, default attitude of trust in other people. Why do I say that? Because you're here. Because you're reading Daily Kos, probably even logged in as registered participant. Because you're probably not reading this while waving a sign proclaiming that you want your country back from people who aren't exactly like you.

(There's more below the fold)

The Moral Foundations of Trust, by Eric M. Uslaner

Because we're the sort of people who read and participate at a Democratic political site, we probably have a more generalized attitude of trust than a typical tea party slogan shouter. Tea party participants exhibit what Professor Eric Uslaner calls "particularized trust", a trust that requires everyone to be just like us. Having a more inclusive worldview correlates strongly with a more generalized trust, the sort of trust we can extend to people who differ from us. More importantly, generalized trust also extends to trust in the ability of government to be useful.

Eric Uslaner works as a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland. In the 1990s he examined rising incivility among members of Congress, reported in an earlier book, The Decline of Comity in Congress (1993). His book, The Moral Foundations of Trust, extends his research about the role of trust in forming and maintaining functional government. Although aimed at an audience of social science scholars who want to see lots of data and statistics, it's possible to extract a few intriguing notions from the text even while skimming.

Regular readers of Morning Feature may note the title's similarity to Jonathan Haidt's work on moral foundations. That turns out to be a coincidence. Uslaner's book was published years before Haidt's research results, and their concepts of moral foundations differ. Uslaner's apparent goal is to distinguish "moralistic trust" from "strategic trust". Strategic trust is knowledge-based or knowledge-derived, and often temporary. Strategic trust results from a decision to trust someone to complete a transaction or to perform a service. Selecting a plumber from those reviewed at Angie's List would be an example. Strategic trust draws from the same mental model as rational actors in economics. Apparently strategic trust received more attention from Uslaner's social science peers during the 1990s, but he wanted to explore how trust relates to ethics, attitudes, and values, some components of "moralistic trust".

After distinguishing moral trust from strategic trust, Uslaner lays out his other key distinction: "particularized trust" compared to "generalized trust":

"Particularized trusters only rely upon people they are sure share their own values. Generalized trusters presume that most people they meet share their values; particularized trusters demand evidence that people outside their circles (or identity groups) share their beliefs."

Flag pin, anybody?

Or more recently: Show us your papers!
(We demand evidence that you share our beliefs.)

This isn't necessarily a new model, of course. It relates to in-group and out-group behaviors long ago described by psychologists. Uslaner even uses the terms in-group and out-group in his descriptions. What struck me about particular trust is how well it describes the vehement and venomous in-group and out-group dynamics exhibited by tea partiers and the Arizona state legislature. In practice, particularized trust looks like paranoia strong suspicion of anyone who hasn't yet proven they're just like me (Okay, and you, too. But where's your flag pin?)

Here are a few other noteworthy tidbits. Items not quoted are my paraphrases.

  • Generalized trust declines as income inequality increases. Trust in other people, our fellow citizens, and trust in government have disappeared along with income.


  • "Young people with friends of different race are less likely to be particularized trusters."
    (Again, this correlates with other psychology data, the "
    exposure effect".)


  • "Highly educated people (especially with college education) more likely to be generalized trusters, less likely to be particularized trusters."


  • "Optimists are more likely to be generalized trusters, less likely to be particularlized trusters."


  • Sense of control is a predictor: "People who think that they can control their lives are more likely to be generalized trusters and less likely to be particularized trusters."


Do those data points begin to describe worldviews we recognize? I think so. Although the author emphasizes the politically neutral label, "optimist", I found myself classifying various descriptions as liberal, conservative, liberal, conservative, liberal, etc. The book predates the current tea party phenomenon, and tea partier behavior can be explained several different ways, of course. But the concept of particularized trust seemed like a  perspective on tea party politics that might be timely and valuable to share.

In the last chapters of Moral Foundations of Trust, Uslaner describes ways that interpersonal trust can and apparently do improve the operation of government. That appears to be the basis of his current research about the effects of corruption in government.

Uslaner's Moral Foundations of Trust is nearly ten years old. The survey data available to him, mostly from the 1980s and 1990s, also limited the conclusions he could draw.  Since then other authors, such as Lakoff, Altameyer, and Haidt, have published more up-to-date and more accessible writing (for non-specialists) on morality, social psychology, and politics. But the book seems useful as a data-dense social science reference.

I found Uslaner's book on the social psychology shelf at my library, where I was looking for information about the ways we interpret signals to assess trust or threat. This book didn't answer any of those questions, so I'll keep looking.

Two closing thoughts, one from Uslaner and one from some other guy:

"People who trust others don't see differences in values as a call to arms. They are tolerant of people unlike themselves. They see the potential of mutual gains by working together.... Without generalized trust, you need to build strategic trust time and time again."

Remember the policy called, "Trust, but verify"? Is that really trust? It seems to me a very particular kind of trust.

I trust that you've read scrolled this far. Thanks for your kind attention. And thanks for your generalized trust that at least some of our fellow humans can re-establish healthy, mature democracy.

Cheers, and good morning, y'all


The book is a study of the moral foundations of trust in other people, distinguishing between generalized trust and particularized trust. I begin with an examination of the standard view of trust, which holds that trust reflects one’s life experience. I suggest both theoretical and empirical reasons why this is an incomplete view of trust. The more interesting and consequential parts of trust stem from looking at the concept as a moral value. Generalized trust, as reflected in the survey question, "Do you believe most people can be trusted, or can’t you be too careful in dealing with people?" expresses faith in strangers. Thus, it cannot be based on experience. I show how generalized trust as a moral concept affects a wide range of actions, from everyday life to working in the community. 



Trust makes people more likely to endorse strong standards of moral behavior and to be willing to pay more in taxes to increase government spending (even though they generally don’t favor more spending). Trusters are less likely to say that you should obey a law without questioning it. Trusters believe that the country has a common set of values and that our educational system should be based on the classics. 

Generalized trusters believe that ethnic politicians should not serve ethnic interests. Even controlling for their fear of crime, trusters are less likely to lock their doors. They are also less likely tocall in sick for work when they are really well–and more likely to spend time helping relatives. The roots of trust are in an optimistic world view. Trust reflects this outlook more than it does real life economic conditions. And trust has been in decline for over 30 years. The roots of the decline in trust are traceable to declining optimism and increasing economic inequality. I find support for this by aggregate time series in the United States and cross-sectional data across market economies.

Chapter 1 introduces the manuscript. Chapter 2 lays out the difference between strategic and moral trust. Chapter 3 takes care of some measurement issues (including defending the trust question against charges it doesn't measure what it purports to) and also shows that trust is stable over time. Chapter 4 shows that moralistic (generalized) trust doesn't depend upon experience, but on optimism and a sense of control (and comes from one's parents).  Chapter 5 examines the purported linkages between informal socializing, membership in civic associations, trust in government, and personal experiences and trust in other people.  In virtually every case, both informal socializing and group membership neither produce nor consume trust.  The only types of civic activities that are strongly related to trust are volunteering and giving to charity, both of which link us to people who are different from ourselves.  Neither trust in government nor trust in people we know leads to generalized trust in strangers. Chapter 6 focuses on how trust changes over time, both for individuals and in the aggregate.  As people become more optimistic, they become more trusting.  And in particular there are powerful effects for two forms of "collective" experiences, the civil rights movement (which increased trust) and the war in Vietnam (which lowered trust among opponents). 

Overall, the biggest single factor that has shaped the decline in trust in the United States is the rise in economic inequality since the 1960s.  As inequality has risen, optimism has fallen, and so has trust.   Chapter 7 summarizes the consequences of trust.  There has been a general decline in many forms of civic engagement, but most (especially informal socializing, group membership, and political participation) are not linked to trust.  However, the decline in the share of our national income going to charity (especially charity that benefits people who are different from ourselves), the smaller number of people volunteering for the Red Cross, and volunteer firefighters are all linked to the decline in trust.  Trusters are more tolerant of people different from themselves and more willing to support government programs to help people who face discrimination.  Chapter 8 is a cross-national examination of trust.  As in the United States over time, the strongest determinant of trust cross-nationally for countries without a legacy of Communism is the level of economic equality.  Countries with many trusters also have better functioning governments, stronger economic growth, and more open economies.  They also pursue policies that redistribute income from the rich to the poor.  The epilogue sums it up. And there is also a list of references.

Here is what two leading academics, professor robert wuthnow of the sociology department at princeton university, and professor holli semetko (professor of audience and public opinion research at the university of amsterdam) wrote about the book on the back dust jacket:



Here is what Professor Samantha Luks of the University of Minnesota wrote about the book in the December 2003 issue of Perspectives on Politics, 1:795-796:

The Moral Foundations of Trust. By Eric M. Uslaner. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 298p. $65.00 cloth, $23.00 paper.

Samantha Luks, University of Minnesota

In recent years, many scholars have questioned how the decline of interpersonal trust has affected American political life. Eric Uslaner adds to this literature by explaining the causes of the decline of generalized trust in America and the political importance of having a trusting society.

One of the more important contributions Uslaner makes to the study of trust is the thorough distinction between "strategic trust" and "moralistic trust." Many accounts in the trust literature have focused on knowledge-based trust (e.g., Claus Offe’s "Trust and Knowledge, Rules and Decisions: Exploring a Difficult Conceptual Terrain," in Mark A. Warren, ed., Democracy and Trust, 1999). In other words, actor A expects actor B to behave in a certain fashion because of previous experiences withthat individual. In more extreme versions of this theory (such as in Russell Hardin’s Trust and Trustworthiness, 2002), one can develop trust only on a one-by-one basis through specific interactions with an individual and cannot generalize to a larger group of people through his or her experiences.

Uslaner demonstrates that the strategic account of trust can be problematic in studies of social capital. For instance, Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone (2000) asserts that participation in social organizations can improve trust and that it is the secular decline in participation that has led to reduced trust in other people. However, Uslaner is quick to point out that the kind of people one meets in these sorts of activities are likely to be similar to oneself. How then do we learn to trust people with whom we have nothing in common? Clearly, such "trusters" exist, but their decision to trust people in general cannot be based on a strategic calculation, because people lack the necessary experience to make such an evaluation (Hardin’s "Trusting Persons, Trusting Institutions," in Richard J. Zeckhauser, ed., Strategy and Choice [1991] makes a similar point about the difficulties of strategically trusting the government).

It is here that the importance of understanding moralistic trust emerges. Unlike strategic trust, moralistic trust generally is not based on recent experiences and does not require a calculation of risk. Additionally, moralistic trust is not altered by a few bad experiences with individuals; a single bad experience does not destroy one’s faith in mankind. In fact, faith is a good way to describe moralistic, or generalized, trust. Generalized trusters trust a wide range of people, not just people like themselves or who share their own values. Furthermore, generalized trust exists in many contexts. As Uslaner states, "A trusts, rather than A trusts B to do X" (p. 27).

Despite the differences between moralistic and strategic trust, both have experienced a decline in recent decades. The question then is that if generalized trust is unrelated to organizational participation, what has caused its decline? Uslaner presents two main foundations for moralistic trust: optimism and economic equality. The two most important components of optimism are the belief that the future will be better than the past and that we as individuals can control our environment. It is this type of faith that allows people to overcome setbacks.

What is more provocative is the connection Uslaner makes between economic inequality and the decline of generalized trust in America. The perception that one is worse off than others has contributed to the decline of trust. While some perceptions of inequality do come from television images of the extremely wealthy, most come from viewing the world around oneself. When objectively measured economic inequality is high, people are less likely to be optimistic about their ability to overcome hardship through hard work.

Through his analyses, Uslaner directly challenges many arguments made by Putnam (2000). For example, contrary to the picture of American small-town life as communities of trusting citizens, people who live in small towns are likely to be particularized trusters of their own kind, but distrustful of strangers and outsiders. Moreover, he shows that trust did not begin to erode with the advent of the baby boom generation and the television age. Rather, the early baby boom generation (born 1946 to 1955) is actually the most trusting, because this generation has experienced the least economic inequality and is the last generation to do better than the generation of its parents.

Given that Uslaner focuses on a different conception of trust than has been used previously, it is important to address the question of why generalized trust matters. He shows that generalized trusters are more likely to hold a host of political attitudes many would consider beneficial. They are more likely to give positive evaluations of groups that have traditionally faced discrimination and are more supportive of the legal order in society. These types of attitudes translate into a greater willingness to serve on juries and to contribute to causes that help the less fortunate (he notes that particularized trusters, while more participant in activities that may benefit themselves, are not more likely to help the needy). At the aggregate level, while declining trust has no apparent relationship with civic engagement, it has hindered collective action where a high level of cooperation between disparate groups is required.

The scope of the arguments in The Moral Foundations of Trust is impressive. Uslaner consults a wide variety of survey data sources (regrettably, some of these sources are somewhat dated) and uses a number of statistical approaches in this pursuit. It is here that the book would benefit from more explanation of the reasoning behind the models and statistical techniques he uses. For example, he does not explain why he imputes data in Chapter 7 or the choice of the imputation method. More seriously, because many of the findings rest on testing causal ordering between variables through simultaneous models (e.g., the relationships between trust and optimism and between trust and volunteerism), Uslaner should have devoted more time to how he developed and tested the specifications of his models. These criticisms notwithstanding, this book provides a careful treatment of why we should consider generalized trust separately from specific trust. It is a significant contribution to the trust and social capital literatures.


And here is what Julia Schafer and Stephanie Stuck of the University of Mannheim wrote in Politische Vierteljahresschrift, 45: March 2004 (graciously translated by Helmut Lott of the University of Maryland):

Eric M. Uslaner.  The Moral Foundations of Trust.  Cambridge University Press 2002, 297 p., $23 (paperback), $63 (hardcover).


“Trust is the chicken soup of social life,” for trust has, just like chicken soup, many positive effects but cannot solve every problem.  This is Eric Uslaner’s point of view in his book The Moral Foundations of Trust.  In his opinion generalized trust is general openness based on basic moral convictions, collective experiences, and optimistic attitudes regarding complete strangers.  Uslaner parts with many scholars of social capital, as he believes that there is no connection between generalized trust and social participation.  Relying on a variety of data sets he investigates the conditions and consequences on the level of the individual as well as comparative state level data.

Uslaner distinguishes between knowledge-based strategic trust on one hand and moral trust on the other.  Strategic trust rests on information and expectations.  It relates to specific persons, develops slowly with experience and is fragile.  Moral trust, on the other hand, represents a complete system of values that children acquire from their parents and that changes throughout life only little.  It reflects a “general outlook on human nature” (17) and includes the conviction that complete strangers share basic values.  Moral trust is therefore the foundation of generalized trust.  Particular trust, on the other hand, rests on knowledge and is different from generalized trust also through the smaller sphere of one’s own “moral community” (21): while people with particular trust only extend trust to a tightly defined group of people (in-group) they meet outsiders generally skeptically.  Individuals with generalized trust evaluate their in-group not substantially better than out-groups.

Uslaner explicitly foregoes the term social capital but on balance this is a book that adds many interesting aspects to the present social capital debate.  The clear distinction between strategic and moral trust contributes to the necessary specification of the concept trust.  Furthermore one must emphasize the empirical investigation of the causal relationship between trust and participation.  Uslaner documents his hypothesis that civil engagement does not lead to more trust in strangers.  He explains the American decline in trust since the sixties with generational effects.  Unlike the proponents of the social capital theory he emphasizes not the importance of social participation but collective experiences such as the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War.  Uslaner’s analysis furthermore reveals that tolerance and social equality are important for a society’s level of trust.  Uslaner also confirms the notion that generalized trust reflects the general attitude about strangers because fundamental optimism proves to be a key factor for generalized trust.  Especially the treatment of optimism as a moral conviction as product of socialization is an interesting addition to the social capital models.

The Moral Foundations of Trust is enriching reading for interested lay readers as well as expert researchers.  The book’s style is stimulating supplementing data and arguments with anecdotes from Uslaner’s personal experience.  The fact that Uslaner places data analysis in footnotes facilitates considerable empirical analysis while preserving good readability.  On the other hand, occasionally it is not possible to entirely understand his data analysis because the composition of the indicators or the type of the statistical model is unclear.  Terms such as “faith,” “interpersonal trust,” “generalized trust” or “trust” without informing the reader of the (apparently) synonymous use (see page 56, for example) are confusing.

In summary, Uslaner goes beyond the known hypotheses and simple correlations regarding the relevance of trust for the workings of democratic societies and attempts to question the conventional wisdom of the debate theoretically as well as empirically.  He raises not only questions about many assumptions of the social capital debate but provides stimulating and innovative theses that enliven the debate.  Therefore Eric Uslaner’s The Moral Foundations of Trust may well turn out to be chicken soup for the debate about social capital.

Download the full manuscript or individual chapters in either Adobe Acrobat or WordPerfect format. See the discussion of my findings on trust in the Washington Post's "Unconventional Wisdom" column of June 27, 1999 or download a non-technical summary of the findings in my paper, "Trust and Consequences" delivered at the Communitarian Summit, Arlington, VA, February, 1999 (pdf version, WordPerfect version).
Comments are most welcome!

You need the Adobe Acrobat reader to read or print Adobe files. You can download it for free by clicking here.

This is a revised edition of the book, revised as of July, 2000.

Adobe Acrobat Files WordPerfect Files
Trust Chapter 1 Trust Chapter 1
Trust Chapter 2 Trust Chapter 2
Trust Chapter 3 Trust Chapter 3
Trust Chapter 4 Trust Chapter 4
Trust Chapter 5 Trust Chapter 5
Trust Chapter 6 Trust Chapter 6
Trust Chapter 7 Trust Chapter 7
Trust Chapter 8 Trust Chapter 8
Trust Epilogue Trust Epilogue
Trust References Trust References


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