Declines in trust in others and confidence in institutions among American adults and late adolescents, 1972-2012

Psychol Sci. 2014 Oct;25(10):1914-23. doi: 10.1177/0956797614545133. Epub 2014 Sep 9.


Between 1972 and 2012, Americans became significantly less trusting of each other and less confident in large institutions, such as the news media, business, religious organizations, the medical establishment, Congress, and the presidency. Levels of trust and confidence, key indicators of social capital, reached all-time or near-all-time lows in 2012 in the nationally representative General Social Survey of adults (1972-2012; N = 37,493) and the nationally representative Monitoring the Future survey of 12th graders (1976-2012; N = 101,633). Hierarchical modeling analyses separating the effects of time period, generation, and age show that this decline in social capital is primarily a time-period effect. Confidence in institutions is also influenced by generation, with Baby Boomers lowest. Trust was lowest when income inequality was high, and confidence in institutions was lowest when poverty rates were high. The prediction of a sustained revival in social capital after 2001 seems to have been premature.

Keywords: change over time; generational differences; sociocultural factors; trust; values.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Attitude*
  • Commerce
  • Federal Government
  • Humans
  • Income
  • Intergenerational Relations*
  • Interpersonal Relations
  • Medicine
  • Middle Aged
  • Poverty
  • Religion
  • Science
  • Social Capital*
  • Social Values
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • Television
  • Trust*
  • Young Adult