Why Are We More Likely To Trust Total Strangers Now?

We were not always like this! Even 120 years ago, trusting did not come normally in society.

An Anthropological & Sociological Essay

Main Categories: Cognitive Biases / Anthropology / Sociology

Author:
•  Tim McGuinness, Ph.D. – Anthropologist, Scientist, Director of the Society of Citizens Against Relationship Scams Inc.

About This Article

The evolution of trust from cautiousness to openness towards strangers reflects a complex interplay of historical, cultural, and technological factors.

Initially spurred by post-pandemic euphoria and the Roaring Twenties’ optimism, trust eroded during World War II, rebounded briefly post-war, and waned again during the Cold War.

The Flower Generation challenged norms in the 1960s, fostering unity and trust.

The digital revolution accelerated trust normalization, facilitated by social media, e-commerce, and peer-to-peer economies.

Today, familiarity, social proof, and cognitive biases shape trust behaviors, despite vulnerabilities exploited by cybercriminals.

Balancing trust with vigilance is a survival necessity in maintaining safe interactions with anyone now! Where the allure of trust often collides with the reality of exploitation is where the criminal element hides.

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The Shift Toward Trusting Strangers in Modern Society and the Evolution of Trust from Post-Pandemic Euphoria to the Internet Age

Trust, at least as I see it – Tim McGuinness, Ph.D.

Trust is a fundamental aspect of human relationships and societal functioning. Historically, humans have navigated their social worlds with a degree of caution, wary of strangers and potential threats. However, this inherent distrust has gradually shifted towards a more open and trusting attitude, particularly in the United States.

This transformation can be traced back to significant historical events, including the aftermath of the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1917-1920, and has been further accelerated by the advent of the internet. In contemporary society, people often trust strangers with remarkable and very often dangerous ease, a stark contrast to historical norms of skepticism and caution.

This shift can be attributed to several interrelated factors, including cultural evolution, technological advancements, and changes in social dynamics. Understanding why people now think little about trusting strangers requires exploring these factors and their influence on human behavior.

Historical Context and Cultural Evolution

Historically, humans lived in small, close-knit communities where trust was reserved for known individuals. Strangers were viewed with suspicion due to the potential threats they posed. Over time, as societies expanded and became more interconnected, the necessity of interacting with strangers increased. The evolution from agrarian societies to urbanized ones demanded a more trusting approach to facilitate trade, cooperation, and social cohesion.

Post-Pandemic Euphoria (1917-1920) and Economic Prosperity

The aftermath of the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1917-1920 played a significant role in reshaping societal attitudes towards trust. The Spanish Flu pandemic was a global catastrophe that claimed millions of lives. In its aftermath, the world experienced a profound shift in social dynamics.

The collective relief and exuberance following the end of the pandemic and World War I led to a period of social and economic prosperity known as the Roaring Twenties. This era saw a surge in social mobility, urbanization, and cultural exchange, fostering a spirit of optimism and openness. People began to view strangers less as threats and more as opportunities for new connections and ventures.

The end of the pandemic coincided with the conclusion of World War I, leading to a period marked by relief, exuberance, and a collective yearning for normalcy and human connection. This era, known as the Roaring Twenties, was characterized by economic prosperity, cultural flourishing, and a break from the past.

The euphoria of survival brought about a more optimistic outlook on life. People sought to rebuild and celebrate, this created a sense of communal solidarity and shared humanity. This period saw a decline in rigid social hierarchies and an increase in social mobility with the widespread availability of motorcars. The newfound sense of optimism and community spirit gradually eroded the traditional wariness toward strangers. Trust became a more readily extended commodity as people engaged in new social and economic opportunities, mingling in urban centers, and embracing a burgeoning consumer culture.

The Fluctuating Nature of Trust: From World War II to the Cold War

The trajectory of societal trust has experienced significant fluctuations throughout the 20th century, influenced heavily by major global conflicts and their aftermaths. From the widespread distrust during World War II to a brief resurgence of trust post-war, followed by the pervasive suspicion of the Cold War era, the dynamics of trust and distrust have been inextricably linked to the political and social climates of these periods.

The Erosion of Trust During World War II

World War II (1939-1945) marked a period of intense distrust, particularly towards specific ethnic groups and nationalities. The war necessitated a culture of suspicion and vigilance, significantly impacting societal trust:

  1. Distrust of Japanese Americans: Following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, fear and suspicion of Japanese Americans surged. The U.S. government, driven by national security concerns, and the safety of their Japanese American population, implemented policies such as the internment of Japanese residents. Over 120,000 individuals of Japanese descent were forcibly relocated and confined in camps, for both isolation and protection, reflecting the deep mistrust of an entire ethnic group based on their heritage rather than individual actions.
  2. Distrust of Germans and Italians: Similarly, German and Italian Americans faced scrutiny and discrimination. Although not as known as the Japanese internment, Germans were interned before the Japanese and those that were not, experienced government surveillance, loyalty investigations, and social ostracization. This period was characterized by a pervasive fear of espionage and sabotage, leading to a general atmosphere of suspicion by necessity.
  3. Propaganda and Xenophobia: Wartime propaganda further fueled distrust. Both the Allied and Axis powers employed intense propaganda campaigns to dehumanize the enemy and ethnic groups and galvanize public support. This created a narrative of “us versus them,” eroding trust between nations and within diverse communities from Asia to Europe to the Americas.

Post-War Trust Rebound

The end of World War II in 1945 brought a wave of relief and optimism, fostering a brief period of renewed trust and cooperation:

  1. Reconstruction and International Cooperation: The post-war era saw significant efforts towards reconstruction and international cooperation. Initiatives like the Marshall Plan, which provided aid to rebuild European economies, symbolized a commitment to mutual support and rebuilding trust among nations.
  2. United Nations Formation: The establishment of the United Nations in 1945 aimed to solidify international collaboration and prevent future conflicts. The UN’s creation marked a significant step towards global trust, with member states working together to address common challenges and promote peace.
  3. Social Integration: In the United States, efforts to integrate returning soldiers and rebuild communities contributed to a sense of unity and trust. The GI Bill, which provided benefits to veterans, helped millions reintegrate into civilian life, fostering a sense of shared purpose and trust in government support. However racial divides continued to damage trust overall.

The Cold War and Renewed Distrust

The onset of the First Cold War (1947-1991) quickly reversed the brief period of post-war trust, ushering in an era dominated by suspicion and paranoia of communists worldwide:

  1. Red Scare and McCarthyism: In the late 1940s and 1950s, the fear of communist infiltration led to the Red Scare in the United States. Senator Joseph McCarthy spearheaded efforts to root out suspected communists within government, industry, and entertainment. The era of McCarthyism was marked by intense distrust, with widespread accusations, loyalty tests, and blacklists creating a climate of fear and suspicion.
  2. Nuclear Arms Race: The nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union (and later the PRC) heightened mutual distrust. The threat of nuclear war and espionage cast a shadow over international relations, with both superpowers viewing each other as existential threats.
  3. Cultural and Political Divisions: The Cold War also exacerbated cultural and political divisions within nations. In the U.S., fears of communism influenced domestic policies and led to widespread discrimination against perceived leftist sympathizers. This period saw a resurgence of xenophobia and mistrust towards immigrants and minority groups, often portrayed as potential subversives.
  4. Spying and Surveillance: The extensive use of espionage by both the U.S. and the Soviet Union further entrenched distrust. High-profile spy cases, such as those of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed for allegedly passing atomic secrets to the Soviets, intensified public suspicion and paranoia.

The mid-20th century witnessed dramatic shifts back and forth in societal trust, heavily influenced by global conflicts and their aftermaths. World War II eroded trust through fear and suspicion of specific ethnic groups and nationalities, while the immediate post-war period saw a brief resurgence of trust driven by reconstruction and international cooperation. However, the onset of the Cold War quickly reversed this trend, plunging the world into an era of pervasive distrust and paranoia. These historical fluctuations underscore the profound impact of geopolitical events on societal trust, shaping the ways in which communities and nations interact and perceive each other.

The Flower Generation and the Transformation of Trust in Society

The 1960s, a decade marked by profound social change, saw the emergence of the “Flower Generation,” also known as the hippie movement. This cultural revolution profoundly impacted the landscape of trust in society throughout the world, challenging established norms and inventing a new ethos of openness, communal living, and interpersonal trust.

The Roots of the Flower Generation

The Flower Generation emerged against a backdrop of political unrest, civil rights movements, and the Vietnam War. Disillusioned by mainstream society’s materialism, militarism, and conformity, young people sought alternative lifestyles that emphasized peace, love, and harmony with nature. This quest for a more meaningful existence led to the birth of the counterculture movement, with the hippie as its most iconic symbol.

Challenging Established Norms

The hippie movement fundamentally challenged the traditional notions of authority and societal structures. Rejecting the status quo, the Flower Generation promoted ideals of equality, free expression, and communal living. This era saw a dramatic shift in how people related to one another, breaking down barriers of distrust entrenched by decades of conflict and suspicion.

Communal Living and Trust

One of the hallmarks of the Flower Generation was the rise of communes—communities where people lived together, shared resources and practiced collective decision-making. These communes were experiments in radical trust, requiring members to rely on one another for daily needs and support. The success of many of these communes demonstrated that trust could flourish in an environment that valued cooperation and mutual aid over competition and individualism. In a way, it was an attempt to return to earlier tribal times. Though in fact, it led to cults and serial killers.

The Role of Music and Festivals

Music and festivals played a crucial role in shaping the trust landscape of the 1960s. Events like Woodstock in 1969 [I was there] brought together hundreds of thousands of people in a spirit of peace and solidarity. These gatherings were not just about music but also about creating a temporary utopian society where trust and camaraderie prevailed. The shared experiences of these festivals helped to break down social barriers and foster a sense of unity among diverse groups of people.

The Altamont Free Concert, held on December 6, 1969, in Northern California, is often remembered as a disaster rather than a celebration of music. Billed as the “West Coast Woodstock,” the event descended into chaos, marred by violence (including rapes and killings,) drug overdoses, and ultimately, the tragic death of a concertgoer, Meredith Hunter, at the hands of Hells Angels (an outlaw criminal biker gang) security guards. The festival, featuring iconic bands like The Rolling Stones, became a stark symbol of the darker side of the counterculture movement, highlighting the tensions and dangers that could arise in large-scale gatherings fueled by drugs, alcohol, and a lack of proper security. [I was there too!]

The Influence of Psychedelic Culture

Psychedelic drugs, such as LSD, were also influential in the Flower Generation’s approach to trust and society. Many in the movement believed that these substances could expand consciousness and break down the ego, leading to greater empathy and connection with others. While controversial, the use of psychedelics was seen by some as a path to a deeper understanding of humanity and a more trusting, interconnected world. Unfortunately, ‘bad trips’ led to it being outlawed and to countless deeply affected victims.

Legacy of the Flower Generation

The impact of the Flower Generation on the trust landscape was profound and lasting, especially on the ‘baby boomer’ generation. While the movement itself began to wane by the early 1970s, its ideals continued to influence subsequent generations. The emphasis on peace, love, and communal living left an indelible mark on society, contributing to greater openness and tolerance in many areas of life.

The Flower Generation of the 1960s was a transformative period that reshaped societal trust. By challenging established norms, embracing communal living, and fostering a spirit of openness and unity, the hippie movement left a lasting legacy. While not without its challenges and contradictions, the Flower Generation demonstrated that trust could be rebuilt and strengthened through shared ideals and collective action. Its influence continues to be felt in the ongoing efforts to create a more just, equitable, and trusting society. However, this was a more innocent era, where respect for law and rights were the rule, and most crimes were rare.

Technological Advancements and the Digital Revolution

Coming out of the Flower Power Movement, Baby Boomers worldwide brought their values into the electronic age.

The most profound shift towards trusting strangers came with the advent of the internet and digital communication. During the 1990s people generally believed that everyone online could be trusted and took great steps to accumulate vast numbers of stranger contacts.

Several factors within this realm contribute to the current trust landscape:

  1. Social Media and Online Communities: Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram created environments where sharing personal information and interacting with strangers became normalized and openly promoted. These platforms still encourage transparency and connectivity, fostering a sense of familiarity and trust even among strangers. Completely ignoring the massive dangers that they created.
  2. E-commerce and Online Services: The rise of e-commerce giants like Amazon and eBay, or my own TigerDirect.com, along with services like Airbnb and Uber, has institutionalized trust mechanisms. Reviews, ratings, and verification processes provide a safety net, allowing people to confidently engage with strangers. The success of these platforms hinges on their ability to create and maintain trust among users. But as we now know, not everything is as it seems!
  3. Peer-to-Peer Economies: The sharing economy has further normalized trusting strangers. Services like ride-sharing, home-sharing, and even crowdfunding rely on the premise that people will trust and cooperate with strangers. This shift is bolstered by robust feedback systems and community guidelines that ensure accountability. Here too, that trust is proving to be mostly misplaced.
  4. Digital Literacy and Cybersecurity: As digital literacy improves, people become more adept at discerning trustworthy interactions online. Enhanced cybersecurity measures and the prevalence of secure online transactions have reduced the risks associated with digital interactions, making people more comfortable trusting strangers. Unfortunately, with digital literacy came vast overconfidence in the minimal skills people had and this led to almost universal online crime.

Psychological and Sociological Factors

Several psychological and sociological factors also contribute to the increased trust in strangers:

  1. Familiarity through Repetition: Regular interactions with strangers through online platforms create a sense of familiarity. When people consistently have positive experiences, their general trust in strangers increases.
  2. Social Proof and Norms: Seeing others successfully engage with strangers influences individual behavior. Social proof, where people follow the actions of others, plays a significant role in fostering trust. When trusting strangers becomes a social norm, individuals are more likely to conform.
  3. Cognitive Biases: Humans have inherent cognitive biases that can influence trust. The optimism bias, for example, leads people to believe that they are less likely to encounter negative outcomes than others. This bias can make individuals more inclined to trust strangers.
  4. Increased Mobility and Globalization: The modern world is characterized by high mobility and globalization. People frequently move, travel, and interact with diverse groups. This constant exposure to new people necessitates a more trusting attitude to navigate daily life efficiently.

Summary

The shift towards trusting strangers is a complicated phenomenon driven by historical, cultural, technological, and psychological factors. From the post-pandemic euphoria of the early 20th century to the interconnected digital age, societal norms and individual behaviors have evolved to accommodate and even embrace interactions with strangers.

Our entertainment media and political leadership have also propagandized this false belief that everyone is good and can be trusted. Even Disney fairy tales have villains.

While this increased trust facilitates social and economic activities, it also underscores the importance of maintaining vigilance and implementing robust mechanisms to safeguard against potential risks. As society continues to evolve, the balance between trust and caution will remain a crucial aspect of navigating human interactions in an ever-changing world.

Sadly, the deep-seated bias toward trust is extraordinarily embedded in the population worldwide. This, as much as anything, is a major reason for the plague of scams, fraud, and cybercrime we face today!

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