Low Trust Exacerbates Polarization

In my next book, A Liberal Democratic Peace: Creating Trust in Polarized Times, I develop what I call the distrust and divergence hypothesis, where political polarization and falling social and political trust are in a causal feedback loop. I suggest a number of causal connections between the two phenomena, but I thought I’d discuss a new paper someone sent me two weeks ago. Hans Pitlik and Martin Rode have found that “trusting people have a lower propensity to express support for extreme policies, leading to a general moderation of preferences in trusting societies” which allows for more consensus on critical reforms.

Here’s my basic guess as to what’s going on. When people distrust others, they’re much less likely to listen to them, and much more likely to be suspicious of consensus narratives in explaining certain kinds of events. That’s the connection between trust and conspiracy theorizing. If most people can’t be trusted, we probably shouldn’t believe what most people believe (of course, that’s fallacious reasoning, but it’s emotionally intuitive). But if we trust others, we don’t think they’re lying to us and we think their beliefs are probably well-grounded, and so when we trust others, we tend to modify our own points of view towards the conventional wisdom.

That’s not to say this pattern is especially good, but if we think people tend to be less reliable with respect to the political truth when they’ve epistemically isolated themselves from most other people, then we should worry about how low trust people form their beliefs vis-a-vis high trust people. And if we want to reduce polarization, we may want to pursue trust-increasing public policy.

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