Can Most People Be Trusted ?

173 -  TrustA few questions for you.

Do you think most people can be trusted ?

What percentage of people do you think, believe most people can be trusted ?

Have you given money to charity in the last month ?

What percentage of people do you think, have given money to charity in the last month ? 

Have you volunteered your time at least once to help others during the last year ?

What percentage of people do you think, have volunteered their time at least once to help others during the last year ? 

There’s a theme behind these questions – what we do is influenced in part by what others are doing.

The fact is that most of us, most of the time, feel more comfortable when we go along with the accepted social norms, than when we don’t. No one wants to be the only person at a fancy dress party not in fancy dress, or the only one wearing it at a black-tie event.  It’s all about fitting-in and living-up to the expectations of our peers and the wider group.

Of course, it’s not that we always unthinkingly follow the crowd, but just that we tend to conform unless we have especially strong views to the contrary . . . we follow the path of least resistance. This tendency affects our beliefs and behaviours to a surprising degree; from what music we listen to and what we wear, to what newspapers we read and how we vote, and the study of social norms, how they form and develop and how they may be influenced and changed, has become an important area of research.

But the really interesting thing is that in fact it doesn’t much matter what people are actually doing, it’s what we think they’re doing that matters !

If we think everyone else is helping themselves to the office stationary, we might be more tempted to ‘borrow’ a stapler ourselves. If we think everyone else is evading paying their taxes, we might be more tempted to do the same.

And it’s not only our behaviours, it’s also our beliefs.

It we think everyone else is upset about ‘illegal immigrants coming over here, abusing the system’, or that ‘wind-farms are a terrible blight on the landscape’, then the evidence suggests we’re more likely to conform to those views ourselves.

And of course, we mustn’t forget, that in fact most of the time we don’t actually know how everyone else is behaving, or what their beliefs or opinions are.

For example -

How much does the average person give to charity ?

Most of us simply don’t know.

So we tend to either project our own opinions onto the wider world, and assume that most people broadly do the same thing we do, or we rely on our recollections of media headlines we might have spotted recently, which of course puts us at risk not only from their slant and bias, but because we tend to self-select our news sources, often only reading things we already know we’re going to largely agree with.

Needless to say we get things wrong much of the time as a result !

I think this is an important issue – it shapes opinions, actions, policies and ultimately lives.

So I’ve set myself a challenge – to try to distinguish more clearly between facts and opinion, both in others and in myself – we’re all entitled to our own opinions after all, but not our own facts! I’ll also try to challenge untruths being presented as fact wherever I can, or at least ask ‘what’s your evidence for that?’ more often.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I’ll try to be a little more open and talkative about the various ‘good’ things I do; from organic gardening and buying my clothes in charity shops, to recycling and giving money to charity – if you all do the same, we might start changing a few social norms . . . in a good way.

Let your good be visible. 

And finally, the answers:

What percentage of people, do people believe most people can be trusted? What percentage of people do you think, have given money to charity in the last month? What percentage of people do you think, have volunteered their time at least once to help others during the last year?

(41% of people believe most people can be trusted. 74% of people gave money to charity last month. 72% of people have volunteered their time at least once during the last year)

How much does the average person give to charity ?

(The answer to that last one is £16 a month; with poorer people and Muslims being more generous – who knew?)


Similar articles – From Petrified Forests to Poor PeopleChoice is VoluntaryBe Your Own Choice ArchitectGood BehaviourAre You Well Informed?

Photo by James Cridland (creative commons), via Flickr


  1. Lorna Prescott says:

    Hi Steve

    Great post. I was thinking only today about the importance of talking about pro-active choices I make and why. I had a conversation this week about decorating my kitchen, and why I choose an expensive paint (it’s more ethically made) – which led to a discussion about clothes and how they are made. The people I was talking to said ‘I’ve never really thought about that’. I wonder if they will a little now. Today I tweeted about buying a book from Hive ( rather than Amazon, even though it was more expensive, and why I did that. So like you, I’ll make more of an effort to influence social norms among people I come in to contact with. And my next ethical action is to change energy supplier, after reading a recent edition o the Ethical Consumer. Just the act of writing it here is helping my commitment to taking action.

    Thanks for keeping me thinking about important things and the power of small actions.

    • Thanks Lorna. The more I think about the role of social norms, the more important I’m beginning to believe they are – though I’m also increasingly clear they are ‘local’.

      By local I mean they are often confined to particular groups or demographics – what might be the social norm for people at the golf club will be very different for those on the estate, or the social norm for those people reading certain newspapers etc.

      This means of course that to some extent we select our social norms by selecting many of the groups we belong to . . . given our filtering of the internet this is probably an issue of increasing significance.

      Our ‘culture’ is fragmenting.

      Question – what ‘social glues’ can we use to improve how we all relate to each other and agree common-purpose ?

  2. What responsibility does the media have to ensure only thruths are spoken, or at least qualified views? I used to be that to get the concensus view you would sit in the pub and debate your views (or at least the views you want people to associate with you) and the media played the role of giving a wider world paradigm on whatever topic you chose to engage with. But the media is a, potentially, unreliable source of facts.

    So, given that whether global warming is or isn’t happening or the number of teenagers stabbed in cities is largely reported in the press, surely they must be better regulated to ensure the masses can follow the facts rather than views?

    Facebook and Twitter now allow a world audience to an individual’s view like never before. This has obvious benefits and threats but whatever your thoughts it’s a platform for your voice to add to other messages.

    So, should we teach people to search harder for the facts and encourage good decision making skills or should we regulate more the published words? Or, of course, neither.

    • Lorna Prescott says:

      Hi Gareth

      I don’t see why we shouldn’t be teaching (or helping/supporting) people to search for or know where to find facts and make decisions based on their values. Knowing what information to trust and why is really important, wherever it comes from.

    • Some very deep stuff here I think Gareth – starting with ‘whose version of the truth are we talking about’ ?

      I talked to my daughter yesterday about the difference between fact and opinion – not always an easy thing for anyone to disentangle, and the world is getting more complex.

      I think one of the factors is that we seem to be seeing a deminishing of ‘authority’, in the sense of the ‘authoritative view’. Easy access to information is empowering, but only if it’s accurate (well accurate enough).

      On this blog I’m trying to both present (admittedly selected) facts and also influence opinion, but I do try hard to separate the two, to make it easier for people to make up their own minds. I’m not sure there’s anything more we can do other than encourage this, and teach critical enquiry skills . . . I certainly wouldn’t want an Orwellian style ‘Truth Commissioner’ on the internet :o)

  3. Gareth Richards says:

    I suspect that the number of people who can actually be trusted and the number of people other people perceive to be trusted are two different quantities. Of course trust can mean a wide variety of things, for example can I trust Ron to keep his mouth shut about our heist? If you want better analytics you need to start with better questions.

    • Well that was kind of the point of the article Gareth – the difference between our perception of others and the reality.

      If the premise is we all tend to comply with our social norms, then one of the secondary questions is ‘how do we know what these social norms are?’

      There are the things we see for ourselves, of course, but we’re also significantly influenced by the cultural messages we receive from the various media – which of course we self-select to an extent. My overall point with the piece was to suggest those of us ‘doing good’ (interpret as you wish) should do so in a more visible way, in order to maximise its effect on shaping the social norms of others. If everyone we knew gave half their income to charity, it’s inevitable we’d be more likely to do the same!

      As for better questions, yes I quite agree . . .

Speak Your Mind