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20.03.2014Believe It Or Not, Smarter People Are More Trusting Says New Study

Intelligence strongly correlates with generalized trust.

David DiSalvo, Forbes.com

A new study is giving the mistrustful among us something to consider: intelligence strongly correlates with generalized trust. “Generalized trust” in this case refers to a belief that most people can be trusted—that, on average, your fellow man or woman is probably a good egg.

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Before asking how this was determined, you might be wondering why a connection between intelligence and trust was investigated in the first place. As it turns out, a fair amount of research has been conducted on the topic, and perhaps surprisingly intelligence and trust appear to move in lockstep.

In the latest study, researchers from the University of Oxford analyzed data from the General Social Survey, which assesses a representative swath of Americans about a range of attitudes, trust among them.

Participants were asked this question: “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people?”

Answers to that question were correlated against two measures of general intelligence. The first was a test of verbal ability (verbal ability, specifically vocabulary, is a consistently strong measure of intelligence), and the second was a test of “question comprehension.”  Of the two, the first is a more objective measure than the second, since question comprehension relies on the interviewers to assess how well they think each person understood the questions. But both measures—vocabulary and comprehension—are well-established indicators of mental ability.

Researchers controlled for a range of variables, including social status, race and parental education, since any one of those could conceivably throw off the outcome. Even with those variables accounted for, the results were clear: individuals with the highest verbal ability were 34 percentage points more likely to trust others than individuals with the lowest verbal ability. Individuals with the strongest question comprehension were 11 percentage points more likely to trust others than individuals with the lowest comprehension.

Not only do those results hold true despite socio-economic status, marital status, race, age, or religion, they are also consistent through the four decades the General Social Survey has been in existence.

Why this correlation exists is open to debate. The researchers offer a few possibilities, including that smarter people may be better at evaluating others’ trustworthiness, so they tend to select people for relationships who are less likely to betray them. Another possibility is that more intelligent people are simply less likely to do things that someone being trusted might have a strong incentive not to do (like repay a large amount of money).

Or it’s possible that smarter people, on average, interact with people who are materially well off enough that they have less to gain from being untrustworthy—but this isn’t likely since the study controlled for socio-economic status and found the same result whether someone is rich or poor.

Then there’s the possibility that intelligent people are less likely to buy into black and white absolutes, and realize that generally people aren’t just “good” or “bad”—that most of us fall well within the broad blurry area in between.

The study also tracked a few other trust-related outcomes and found—again quite consistently—that people with more generalized trust are more likely to report good or excellent health, and are more likely to describe themselves as “very happy.”

The study was published in the online journal PLoS ONE.

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