Jens Peter Frølund Thomsen

Previous studies have not examined whether (personal) political ideology influences how trusters perceive of immigrants and refugees as a threat. Analyses show that the relationship between social trust and perceived outgroup threat is considerably weaker among rightists than among leftists. Although social trust does relate negatively to perceived outgroup threat across the ideological divide, political ideology has a constraining influence that cannot be ignored. Social trust is also a political phenomenon.

Adapted from an article published in Political Studies.

We were surprised that scholars treat social trust as an apolitical phenomenon. Rather, we agree with Aristotle that most human beings are political animals – including trusters. To expand on this important claim, we report a comprehensive analysis of 21 nations and 32,175 individuals, in which we show that social trust reduces perceived outgroup threat. This result is fully consistent with previous studies, although most of them have used alternative measures of negative reactions toward ethnic minority members. Unlike previous studies, however, we also show that the ability of social trust to reduce perceived outgroup threat is not uniform across the ideological divide. To be sure, our findings are not inconsistent with the claim that the moral community can co-exist with ideological differences; however, our analyses do show that the moral community is not ideologically innocent, as right-wing trusters have a more pessimistic view of the consequences of non-Western immigration than their left-wing counterparts.

We are the first to show this result – and it implies more generally that political and ideological values shape some of the real-life consequences of social trust. Inconsistent with the implications of the inclusionary perspective, social trust appears unable to overpower the constraining influence of political ideology (and motivated reasoning). In psychological terms, this may suggest that social trust and political ideology with respect to reactions toward immigration constitute an important type of cross-pressure among specific segments of the citizenry: social trust implies extensive solidarity with immigrants and refugees, whereas right-wing values call for more exclusionist policies in order to protect national cohesion and distinctiveness. More generally, such important psychological ambivalences are undoubtedly indicators of the complexities and challenges of contemporary globalization processes.

In terms of contributions, our main finding speaks to a longstanding debate about the inclusiveness of social trust. Most scholarship sees trusters as persons who are tolerant toward increasing ethnic diversity and significant social transitions in their environment. There are many sources of conflict related to such processes, but social trust is certainly not one of them. Rather, social trust helps to reduce or even prevent deep divisions of opinion in a given society. However, there are immediate observations that do not support this inclusive and apolitical view of social trust. For example, it is well-established that the Nordic nations – Denmark, Norway, and Sweden in particular – have the most trusting populations in the world.

Nonetheless, immigration and refugees have become deeply divisive political issues in Denmark and Norway in recent decades – here, we find some of the most influential radical right-wing parties, and traditional right-of-center parties have also become more opposed to immigration. This is merely to suggest that we need more knowledge about factors that constitute the boundaries of social trust. Expanding on this important “boundary” issue, many scholars appear to emphasize the role of specific negative experiences with other people. Such experiences may weaken the “good will” among trusters toward specific groups. This is a plausible proposition invoking some notion of instrumental rationality, but it also leaves a central question: Must trusters necessarily have personal experiences with a particular group to form an opinion about it?

Our answer is negative, although we do not reject the importance of personal experiences. The point is that the influence of motivated reasoning does not necessarily hinge on any direct personal experiences with ethnic outgroup members, as its psychological processes include primarily principled responses to changes in the social environment. More specifically, the average truster can either see in their immediate environment or observe through media stories that incoming non-Western immigrants or refugees differ from the majority group in terms of habits, norms, or values. The average truster is also capable of recognizing that a continuous inflow of new citizens from different cultures does not leave society unaffected in the long term; indeed, all well-established democratic societies must accommodate increasing ethnic diversity at many different institutional levels to some extent. In other words, these social and cultural changes disproportionately challenge trusters with right-wing orientations because they value tradition and conformity.