john_gottman's picture
Psychologist; Co-founder, The Gottman Relationship Institute; Author, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work
The Trust Metric

What has amazed and excited me the most in recent scientific news is that the concept of trust can be measured validly and reliably and that it organizes a vast amount of information about what makes families and human societies function well, or fail.

As a relationship researcher and couples-family therapist, I have known for decades that trust is the number one issue that concerns couples today. Consistent with this truth is the finding that the major trait people search for in trying to find a mate is trustworthiness. Robert Putnam’s groundbreaking book Bowling Alone began documenting this amazing field of scientific research. It is based on a very simple question. Sociologists have used a yes/no survey question: "In general, would you say that you trust people?" It turns out that regions of the USA, and countries throughout the world vary widely in the percentage of people who answer that question by saying "yes."

Here’s the amazing scientific news. In the USA the percentage of people who trust others in a region correlates highly with a vast array of positive social indices such as greater economic growth, the greater longevity of citizens, their better physical health, lower crime rates, greater voting participation, greater community involvement, more philanthropy, and higher child school achievement scores, to mention just a few variables that index the health of a community. As we move from the North to the South in the United States, the proportion of people who trust others drops continuously. A great archival index of trust turns out to be the discrepancy in income between the richest and the poorest people in a region.

High income discrepancy implies low trust. That discrepancy has been growing in the USA since the 1950s, as has the decline in community participation. For example, data show that in the 1950s CEOs earned about 25 times more than the average worker, but that ratio grew steadily so that in 2010 that ratio was about 350 times more. So we are in a crisis in the USA, and it’s no surprise that this difference between the rich and the poor has become a major issue in the 2016 election. One amazing fact in these results is the following: how well our country cares about its poorest citizens is actually a reliable index of the social and economic health of the entire country. Therefore, an empirical finding is that empathy for the poor is smart politics.

These results also hold internationally, where the trust percentage is also related to less political corruption. Only 2 percent of the people in Brazil trust one another, whereas 65 percent trust others in Norway. While many other factors are important internationally, we can note that today Brazil is experiencing vast amounts of chaos, while Norway is thriving.

These spectacular data are, unfortunately, correlational. Of course, it is hard to do real experiments on societal levels. However, these findings on trust have now spawned new growing academic fields of behavioral economics, and neuro-economics. These fields are generating exciting new experiments.

This breakthrough trust work, combined with the mathematics of Game Theory, has led to the creation of a valid "trust metric" in interactions between two people. A new understanding of the processes of how two people build or erode trust in a love relationship has spawned a new therapy that is currently being tested.

What this means to me is that we are coming very close to an understanding of human cooperation in family relationships that generalize to society as a whole. I am hopeful that these breakthroughs may eventually lead us to form a science of human peace and harmony.