Across the globe populations are aging, raising new questions about individual and societal well-being. Stereotypical portrayals in movies might have us assume that increasing age brings suspicion, cynicism and mistrust towards others. But new research suggests this is not the case; instead, trust tends to increase as we age, and this can be good for well-being.
This was the conclusion of researchers from Northwestern University in Evanston, IL, and the University at Buffalo, NY, who report the results of two studies in a combined paper published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.
The first study, which had a cross-sectional design, took a series of snapshots of the link between age and trust at various points in time over a 26-year period. The data came from nearly 198,000 individuals from 83 countries. The participants were aged 14-99 and each was assessed once between 1981 and 2007.
The results showed that older people had higher levels of interpersonal trust than younger people. They also revealed that people who showed more interpersonal trust were also more likely to have higher levels of well-being – especially if they were older. These trends stayed much the same over the 26 years.
The second study, which had a longitudinal design, followed 1,230 participants for 4 years. The participants were selected as a nationally representative sample of Americans aged 18-89, and were recruited in three waves.
The results showed that interpersonal trust increased as people aged – across all age groups. They also showed that people with higher levels of trust also had better well-being, and vice versa.
Co-author Claudia Haase, assistant professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy, reflects that we often think of old age as linked to decline and loss:
“But a growing body of research shows that some things actually get better as we age. Our new findings show that trust increases as people get older and, moreover, that people who trust more are also more likely to experience increases in happiness over time.”
The fact that the trend did not change over time suggests it is not just about being born at a certain time, note the researchers; Millennials, Generation X and Baby Boomers all showed increasing levels of trust with age.
“People really seem to be ‘growing to trust’ as they travel through their adult years,” Prof. Haase adds.
While the study did not look into the reasons for the trend, the researchers speculate it could be that because older adults are increasingly motivated to give back to others, they believe them to be trustworthy.
Prof. Haase says we know that older people are more likely to look on the bright side, so perhaps:
“As we age, we may be more likely to see the best in other people and forgive the little letdowns that got us so wary when we were younger.”
Although trust can have a downside – such as when older people get taken in by confidence tricksters and fraudsters – the studies showed no evidence that these negative outcomes diminish the benefits of trust. Prof. Haase concludes:
“Our findings suggest that trust may be an important resource for successful development across the lifespan.”
In March 2014, Medical News Today reported how research from the University of Oxford in the UK found that, compared with less intelligent counterparts, intelligent people are more likely to trust others. The researchers suggested this could be because intelligent people are better judges of character and thus more likely to identify people who might betray them.
That study also found strong links between trust and health and trust and happiness that the authors said could not be explained by intelligence, leading them to believe previous studies have not overestimated the effect that trust can have on health and well-being.