When we can’t trust each other, nothing works. As we participate in our communities less and less, we find it harder to feel other people are trustworthy. But if we can bring back a sense of trust in the people around us, the rewards are incredible.
There are costs to falling community participation. Rather than simply lamenting the loss of a past golden era (as people have done in every era), Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam explains these costs, as well as how we might bring community participation back.
First published twenty years ago, Bowling Alone is an exhaustive, hefty work. In its 544 pages, Putnam negotiated mountains of data to support his thesis that the previous few decades had seen Americans retreat en masse from public life. Putnam argued Americans had become disconnected from their wider communities, as evidenced by changes such as a decline in civic engagement and dwindling membership rates for groups such as bowling leagues and PTAs.
Though aspects of Bowling Alone are a little dated today (“computer-mediated communication” isn’t a phrase you’re likely to have heard recently), a quick glance at 2021’s social landscape would suggest many of the trends Putnam described have only continued and apply in other parts of the world too.
Right now, polarization and social distancing have forced us apart from any sense of community to a degree that can seem irresolvable.
Will we ever bowl in leagues alongside near strangers and turn them into friends again? Will we ever bowl again at all, even if alone, or will those gleaming aisles, too-tight shoes, and overpriced sodas fade into a distant memory we recount to our children?
The idea of going into a public space for a non-essential reason can feel incredibly out of reach for many of us right now. And who knows how spaces like bowling alleys will survive in the long run without the social scenes that fuelled them. Now is a perfect time to revisit Bowling Alone to see what it can still teach us, because many of its warnings and lessons are perhaps more relevant now than at its time of publication.
One key lesson we can derive from Bowling Alone is that the less we trust each other—something which is both a cause and consequence of declining community engagement—the more it costs us. Mistrust is expensive.
We need to trust the people around us in order to live happy, productive lives. If we don’t trust them, we end up having to find costly ways to formalize our relationships. Even if we’re not engaged with other people on a social or civic level, we still have to transact with them on an economic one. We still have to walk along the same streets, send our children to the same schools, and spend afternoons in the same parks.
To live our lives freely, we need to to find ways to trust that other people won‘t hurt us, rip us off, or otherwise harm us. Otherwise we may lose something too precious to put a price tag on.
No person is an island
As community engagement declines, Putnam refers to the thing we are losing as “social capital,” meaning the sum of our connections with other individuals and the benefits they bring us.
Being part of a social network gives you access to all sorts of value. Putnam explains, “Just as a screwdriver (physical capital) or a college education (human capital) can increase productivity (both individual and collective), so too can social contacts affect the productivity of individuals and groups.” For example, knowing the right people can help you find a job where your skills are well utilized. If you don’t know many people, you might struggle to find work and end up doing something you’re overqualified for or be unemployed for a while.
To give another example, if you’re friends with other parents in your local neighborhood, you can coordinate with them to share childcare responsibilities. If you’re not, you’re likely to end up paying for childcare or being more limited in what you can do when your kids are home from school.
Both individuals and groups have social capital. Putnam also explains that “social capital also can have externalities that affect the wider community, so that not all of the costs and benefits of social connections accrue to the person making the contact . . . even a poorly connected individual may derive some of the spillover benefits from living in a well-connected community.” A well-connected community is usually a safer community, and the safety extends, at least partly, to the least connected members.
For example, the more neighbors know each other, the more they notice when something on the street is out of the norm and potentially harmful. That observation benefits everyone on the street—especially the most vulnerable people.
Having social capital is valuable because it undergirds certain norms. Our connections to other people require and encourage us to behave in ways that maintain those connections. Being well-connected is both an outcome of following social norms and an incentive to follow them. We adhere to “rules of conduct” for the sake of our social capital.
Social capital enables us to trust other people. When we’re connected to many others, we develop a norm of “generalized reciprocity.” Putnam explains this as meaning “I’ll do this for you without expecting anything specific back from you, in the confident expectation that someone else will do something for me down the road.” We can go for the delayed payoff that comes from being nice without an agenda. Generalized reciprocity makes all of our interactions with other people easier. It’s a form of trust.
Putnam goes on to write, “A society characterized by generalized reciprocity is more efficient than a distrustful society, for the same reason that money is more efficient than barter. If we don’t have to balance every exchange instantly, we can get a lot more accomplished. Trustworthiness lubricates social life.” Trust requires that we interact with the same people more than once, or at least think that we might.
Generalized reciprocity as a norm also enables us to work together to do things that benefit the whole group or even that don’t benefit us personally at all, rather than focusing on ourselves. If you live in a neighborhood with a norm of generalized reciprocity, you can do things like mowing a neighbor’s lawn for free because you know that when you need similar help, someone will come through. You can do things that wouldn’t make sense in an “every person for themselves” area.
Societies and groups with a norm of generalized reciprocity maintain that norm through “gossip and other valuable ways of cultivating reputation.”
When people are linked to each other, they know that news will spread if they deviate from norms. If one member of a bowling league cheats and another member notices, they’re likely to discuss it with others, and everyone will know to trust that member a little less. Knowing gossip will spread enables us to trust our perceptions of others, because if something were amiss we would have surely heard about it. It also nudges us towards behaving well—if something is amiss about us, others are sure to hear of that, too.
But with the decline of community participation comes the decline of trust. If you don’t know the people around you, how can you trust them? The more disconnected we are from each other, the less we can rely on each other to be good and nice. Without repeated interactions with the same people, we become suspicious of each other. This suspicion carries heavy costs.
Rising transaction costs
In economics, a “transaction cost” refers to the cost of making some sort of trade within a market. Transaction costs are the price we pay in order to exchange value. They’re in addition to the cost of producing or otherwise providing that value.
For example, when you make a credit card purchase in a shop, the shop likely pays a processing fee to the card company. It’s part of the cost of doing business with you. Another cost is that the shop needs people working in it to ensure you pay. They can’t just rely on you popping the right money in the till then leaving.
Putnam explains later in the book that being able to trust people as a result of a norm of generalized reciprocity in our social lives leads to reduced transaction costs. It means we can relax around other people and not be distracted by “worrying whether you got back the right change from the clerk to double-checking that you locked the car door.” We can easily be honest if we know others will do the same.
With the decline of social capital comes rising transaction costs. We can’t rely on other people to treat us as they would like to be treated because we don’t know them and haven’t built the opportunities to engage in reciprocal relationships.
Much like trusting trustworthy people has great benefits, trusting untrustworthy people has enormous costs. No one likes being exploited or ripped off because they assumed good faith in the wrong person.
If we’re uncertain, we default to mistrust. You can see the endpoint of a loss of trust in societies and groups which must rely on the use or threat of force to get anything done because everyone is out to rip off everyone else.
At a certain point, transaction costs can cancel out the benefits of transacting at all. If lending a leaf blower to a neighbor requires a lawyer to set up a contract stipulating the terms of its use, then borrowing it doesn’t save them any money. They might as well hire someone or buy their own.
We don’t try new things when we can’t trust other people. So we have to find additional ways of making transactions work. One way we do this is through “the rule of law—formal contracts, courts, litigation, adjudication, and enforcement by the state.” During the period since the 1970s when Putnam considers social capital to have declined, the ratio of lawyers to other professions increased more than any other profession: “After 1970 the legal profession grew three times faster than the other professions as a whole.”
While we can’t attribute that solely to a decline in social capital, it seems clear that mistrusting each other makes us more likely to prefer to get things in writing. We are “forced to rely increasingly on formal institutions, and above all the law, to accomplish what we used to accomplished through informal networks reinforced by generalized reciprocity—that is, through social capital.”
The high price of mistrust
The cost of mistrust doesn’t just show up in the form of bills from lawyers. It poisons everything we do and further drives us apart.
Mistrust drives us to install remote monitoring software on our employees’ laptops and ask them to fill in reports on every tiny task to prove they’re not skiving off. It drives us to make excuses when a friend asks for help moving or a lift to the airport because no one was available last time we needed that same help. It drives us to begrudgingly buy a household appliance or tool we’ll only use once because we don’t even consider borrowing it from a neighbor.
Mistrust nudges us to peek at the search history of a partner or to cross-reference what a child says. It causes us to keep our belongings close in public, to double-lock the doors, to not let our kids play in the street, and a million other tiny changes.
Mistrust costs us time and money, sure. But it also costs us a little bit of our humanity. We are sociable animals, and seeing the people around us as a potential threat, even a small one, wears on us. Constant vigilance is exhausting. So is being under constant suspicion.
One lesson we can take from Bowling Alone is that anything we can do to increase trust between people will have tremendous knock-on benefits. Trust allows us to relax, delay gratification, and generally be nicer to everyone. It makes for a nicer day-to-day existence. We don’t need to spend so much time and money checking up on others. Ultimately, it’s worth investing in trust whenever possible, as opposed to investing in more ways of monitoring and controlling people.
That’s not to say that there was ever a golden utopia when everyone trusted everyone. People have always abused the trust of others. And people on the fringes of society have always been unfairly mistrusted and struggled to trust that others would act in good faith. Nonetheless, whenever we go to install some mechanism intended to replace trust, it’s worth asking if there’s a different way.
The ingredients for trust are simple. We need to repeatedly interact with the same people, know that others will warn us about their bad behavior, and feel secure in the knowledge we’ll be helped when and if we need it. At the same time, we need to know others will be warned if we behave badly and that everything we give to others will come back to us, perhaps multiplied.
If you want people to trust you, the best place to start is by trusting them. That isn’t always easy to do, especially if you’ve paid the price for it in the past. But it’s the best place to start. Then you need to combine it with repeat interactions, or the possibility thereof. In the iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma, a game that reveals how cooperation works, the best strategy to adopt is tit for tat. In the first round you cooperate, then in subsequent rounds do whatever the other player did last.
How might that play out in real life? If you want your employees to trust you, then you might start by trusting them—while also making it clear that you’re not going to fire them suddenly and you want them to stick around.
Mistrust is expensive. But trusting the wrong people can sometimes seem too risky. The lesson we can take from Bowling Alone is that building trust is absolutely worthwhile—and that the only way to do it is by finding ways to get out there and engage with other people.
We can create trust by contributing to existing communities and creating new ones. The more we show up and are willing to have faith in others, the more we’ll get back in return.