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Hard to export Nordic trust

Hard to export Nordic trust

| Text: Björn Lindahl

The Nordic model is usually described as a social system with strong unions and employers' organisations, an active state and a generous welfare system. But one cultural trait makes the model hard to export. People in the Nordic region tend to invest a whole lot of trust in each other.

The Nordic countries are different from other European countries and the rest of the world in many ways. But the answer to one particular question really sets them apart from the rest. The question has been put time and again by the  World Values Survey - an international statistical co-operation between 57 countries. The question is:

Do you feel you can generally trust most people?

If you divide the answers into two groups, those who say "You can trust most people" and those who say "You cannot be careful enough", the Nordic countries really stand out.

Here more than half of those questioned say they trust each other. Out of all 57 participating nations, Norwegians are the most trusting of all people. 74 percent went for the first alternative. 68 percent of Swedes, 59 percent of Finns and 58 percent of Danes also reckon people can be trusted. Only the Icelandic are more sceptical. 41 percent generally trust other people - and that was before the economic crisis hit the country. 

Brazil in the bottom

Bottom of the trust league is Brazil. There, less than ten percent answered yes to the question. 

"High crime rates could be the explanation of Brazil's low score. Along with corruption, crime is one of the things which damages people's trust in each other the most," says Mikael Rostila. He's a doctor of sociology at the Centre for Health Equity at Stockholm University and the author of a PhD looking at how trust and social relations influence health. 

You don't have to go as far as Brazil to find countries with low levels of trust. In Italy only 29 percent of people trust each other. Germany, relatively close culturally to the Nordic countries, scores 37 percent. 

There are several explanations for why Nordic people are so trusting. The German researcher Jan Dehly at the Berlin WBC institute has studied 36 different factors which impact trust in a country - from civil war to urbanisation and the risk of accidents. He concluded there are only a few factors that really contribute to a country enjoying high levels of trust. They include an ethnically homogenous population, a protestant belief system, a well-functioning government, wealth and equality. 

"Trust is at its greatest when all these factors are present, and you find all these factors in the Nordic countries," writes Jan Dehly.

The Nordic countries are so unusual that Jan Dehly also excluded them from his study to see whether the factors still applied to the other countries. They did, but to a lesser degree than in the Nordic region. 

What came first?

It's hard to say what come first - did trust make the Nordic model possible, or did the Nordic model generate trust? World Values Survey didn't ask the question until 1979, while the Nordic model grew out of the 1930s. 

"The highest level of trust between citizens is found in countries where social democratic parties have been in power over long periods of time, allowing them to develop a welfare state build on fairness, equality and solidarity - just the kind of society we have had and to a degree still have in Sweden," says Mikael Rostila.

He does not accept that an ethnically homogenous population is a prerequisite for trust, nor that ethnically mixed societies should reduce the level of trust between people. 

"The issue has been studied a great deal and results are contradictory. Saying an ethnically heterogeneous population has a negative impact on trust could well be used as an argument for those who feel we should reduce immigration," he says. 

"More likely you could say immigration increases segregation, which is the real reason for a loss of trust. That means politicians should stop segregation rather than immigration."

Steady level of trust

The level of trust in fellow human beings stays remarkably steady. Trust in various institutions like the monarchy, parliament and government varies quite a lot in Sweden, not to mention trust in the economy, while the level of trust in other people remains nearly static in Gothenburg University's SOM polls. SOM is an acronym for society, opinion and mass media. They will often use a scale from +100 if everybody has trust in an institution down to -100 if everybody lacks trust. Over the past 25 years, the government has swung between +36 and -31. The monarchy has fallen from +41 to +12 during the past 15 years, while trade unions have been steady around -21.

There has been a steady increase in the number of people saying they are happy with the Swedish democracy - from +46 in 1996 to +78 in 2009.

An economic crisis does affect trust, however.

"The economic crisis in the 1990s led to serious cuts in the public sector - that broke the trend. The level of trust between Swedes fell rather than rose. You could guess it had something to do with the crisis and growing differences in income. When people experience unfairness and feel let down by society, they tend to turn more suspicious toward fellow human beings," says Mikael Rostila.

Mikael Rostila

is a doctor of sociology at the Centre for Health Equity at Stockholm University and the author of a PhD looking at how trust and social relations influence health. 


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