The British Social Attitudes survey has been carried out annually by the National Centre for Social Research since 1983. Every year they ask over 3,000 people what it’s like to live in Britain and how they think Britain is run. Our Head of Evidence, Deborah Hardoon, looks at the data on social trust in the latest report, and connects it with the potential wellbeing impact.

We know that social trust (also referred to as generalised or moralistic trust and meaning ‘the level of confidence people have in the moral orientation or trustworthiness of their fellow citizens’, is important for wellbeing, both at the individual level and at the community level.

How are we doing on social trust in Britain?

The National Centre for Social Research’s British Social Attitudes Survey (BSA) has periodically included the question “Generally speaking, would you say that people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people?” since 1998. Having remained stable between 1998 and 2014, their newest report, the 35th edition , which is based on BSA survey data collected in 2017 showed a statistically significant increase in trust, from 47% of people agreeing that people can be trusted in 2014, to 54%.

The increase is a good thing for Britain, although celebrated with much caution – this should not be conflated with trust in government and other institutions – also important for wellbeing, but which is not examined in this report (but see here for recent data).  Further, more data is required to confirm whether or not this is a meaningful trend and of course there remains an important proportion of people in Britain (42%) who feel instead that ‘you can’t be too careful in dealing with people’.

How does trust differ for different groups?

In their report, NatCen wanted to get underneath this aggregate on social trust, to understand how trust differs depending on social, economic and demographic groups. Important differences stood out depending on people’s education and class. Individual’s with the highest level of education (degree or another higher education qualification) had levels of trust around 20 percentage points higher than those with qualifications lower than GCSE or no qualifications. Similar differentials are found with regard to managerial and professional occupations versus routine manual workers.

To better understand the links between the these different groups and their trust levels, the researchers drew on additional questions about people’s social foundations included in the survey, to see if that could explain the differences between these groups. These asked people about their participation – how often they take part in sports and cultural groups (social), political groups (political) and charitable organisations (civic). People were also asked about the extent and diversity of their social networks – specifically if they knew people from different professions.

On the surface, the data shows that higher levels of participation are associated with higher levels of trust, and indeed people with higher levels of education and in managerial and professional occupations are more likely to be active in social and civic groups in particular. People in these education and social status groups are also likely to have more social ties that are generally of higher social status. Regression models carried out by the authors  find that the social status of a person’s social ties as well as the extent of their social participation remain important explanatory variables, independent of a person’s education and social status, unlike civic participation and the number of social ties a person has, which appear to be only important due to their association with a person educational and professional status.

What does this all mean for wellbeing?

We already know that trust matters, so it is reassuring to know that there is at least an indication of an improvement in trust in Britain. Looking at the relationship between trust and social foundations also supports initiatives that seek to encourage social participation and increase people’s social connections. Indeed, this can not only can increase trust, but can also reduce loneliness and increase social connectedness, which we know is another key determinant of wellbeing. However, in highlighting such a marked relationship between people’s socio-economic gradient and people’s reported trust levels, this data also highlights an inequality in wellbeing, which clearly intersects other socioeconomic inequalities in Britain.

Message from the National Centre for Social Research:

Our chapter in the 35th British Social Attitudes report, which explores social trust and its social foundations, uses data collected as part of a wider set of questions asked as part of the International Social Survey Programme and funded by the ESRC. These questions further explore people’s social and support networks along with their health and wellbeing, giving ample space for further analysis into the links between social connectedness, wellbeing and trust. Data from BSA 35 is due to be publicly released later in the autumn and with this we hope the insights it brings will help inform evidence-driven policy on wellbeing.