In a study published in the journal PLOS One, researchers came to the counterintuitive conclusion that people with higher intelligence have higher levels of generalised trust.

The study defines generalised trust as trust in other members of society, as opposed to particularised trust, which refers to people close to us, such as family and friends.

The idea for such research stems from the observation that countries with higher levels of trust have better functioning public institutions and higher economic growth. Since these two elements are associated with societies whose populations have higher levels of intelligence, Noah Carl and Francesco Billari of Oxford University hypothesised that there must be a link between trust and intelligence.

The data on which they based this conclusion came from a series of questionnaires carried out every one or two years since 1972 as part of the General Social Survey. These questionnaires explored various social issues, including generalised trust and intelligence, but there were no studies linking the two.

Even after removing other factors such as gender, nationality or social position, the results showed a significant correlation between intelligence and generalised trust.

Following these surprising findings, the researchers set out to find an explanation. One is that intelligent people are better at analysing a person’s character, so they don’t come into contact with people who might betray their trust. However, the authors acknowledge that there may be other explanations that require further research.

The need for more detailed studies also stems from the shortcomings of the research. Although intelligence was assessed on the basis of language tests, the results of which were confirmed by comparison with the results of the sophisticated IQ test used by the US military, the assessment of generalised trust was less accurate. It was assessed on the basis of a single question asking respondents about their perceptions of the way in which they expressed trust.

Still, the implications of such a study are far-reaching, says Noah Carl. Trust is associated with greater happiness and better health. Therefore, reliable results in social trust analysis can have an impact on government policies or the activities of charitable foundations.

Francisco Billari concludes his research by saying that “generalised trust is a valuable social resource—one which governments, religious groups and civic organisations should strive to cultivate.”

Andreea Irimia is a computer science and technological education teacher.

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