Fault Lines of Trust

In their 2016 paper, Ryan Carlin and Gregory Love test the fault lines of trust in various democracies around the world. Their research proves that party differences bias subjects significantly—in general, people in democracies are highly likely to trust other individuals who share their own political views, and to distrust those who differ.

Carlin and Love only make this study’s connection with competition explicit briefly, but it is an obvious connection, after all—political parties compete for power in a zero sum game with consequences for all of social life. They demonstrate that not only do political elites compete among one another, but party differences affect social cooperation at the level of the ordinary citizen, as well. Citizens identify with the party competition in their government, and become less inclined to work together with or put their trust in their political opponents. Carlin and Love identify this polarized break down in trust as a development which could have potentially disastrous effects on democratic society.

One of the results of their study which Carlin and Love draw attention to is the fact that even in societies with histories of racial division, political affiliation is more likely to bias a subject than racial identity is. This shows that the bond between members in a political group is stronger than the bond between members in a racial group, and that divisions across party lines are deeper than divisions across racial lines. Carlin and Love do emphasize this as a somewhat surprising point. Personally, I do not actually find this point surprising at all. In my experience it absolutely makes sense that people are more willing to trust those of the same political identity than those of the same race. Racial and cultural ties can be powerful, but especially in polarized societies, political affiliation signals a whole worldview and hierarchy of values. I think that race is linked to trust insofar as we feel that we share a worldview with those of our own race, but in a fragmented society where political affiliation is often a quicker and clearer way to discern someone’s stances on many of life’s major questions, it does not surprise me that race becomes secondary.

As @cleacatona6529 points out, our generation is perhaps not as understanding and liberal when it comes to political opinion as we might think we are. In my experience, young, educated people are more likely to be aggressive to one another on the basis of political affiliation than on the basis of race, class, or any other historical divider. We may have different “us” and “them” categories as past generations did, but we certainly still have those categories. Unfortunately, I do think that, although political opinion can be a fairly good indicator of someone’s basic priorities and thus a good hint at whether or not they are similar to oneself, it is at the end of the day a simplistic way to judge someone. The spectrum of right to left certainly does not capture the full range of values and priorities which people are capable of. To judge someone based on party affiliation, or to make party affiliation the cornerstone of one’s identity, is to give our limited system much more credit than it deserves. For millennia human beings have cooperated, competed, and shared ideas without defaulting to a simplistic red vs blue model. As someone who does not personally completely identify either with the left or the right, within this limited model the only option left to me is to call myself a centrist, which I do not think is fair either, since I do have strong opinions on many issues. To summarize, my point is that I am not surprised at all by Carlin and Love’s finding that political division is a huge factor in how we relate to one another in democratic society, but I personally wish that there was more breathing room within the labels which we use to judge one another.


  1. Thank you for sharing your response. You make some insightful points. I think that it’s very interesting that political views are more divisive than racial issues. It would be interesting to look farther into what exactly defines these views and what the psychological reasoning is behind trusting someone with the same political views over someone else.


  2. Thank you for your post, and I tagged you again in my post. Your points and personal reflections on your experiences make sense, however I was personally shocked to see how people seem to trust others who hold similar political beliefs more than people of similar race.

    I am almost, puzzled. Your explanation makes sense, but I am still puzzled as how we can be so tribal when it comes to political beliefs and affiliations.. and how this very fact seems to be getting exploited by politicians to convince us for votes.


  3. I really like that you brought up the paper’s exploration of race and trust as compared to partisanship and trust, and agree that it’s not completely surprising that we were seeing a bigger effect of partisanship than of race. However, I think part of that might be because of how the study was run- by placing an emphasis on partisanship in the questionnaires and making that the main point of the study, I wonder if that might have primed subjects to be paying attention to the other person’s party instead of their race. I would be really interested in seeing whether the party > race bias would still be seen in a study that was dedicated to testing this difference, as it would be more prepared to explicitly control for factors like priming, and possibly the effects of fear of being judged by the researchers for making choices based on race.


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