However, the study’s authors admitted that it was complicated to figure out a specific relationship between where people lived and their level of trust. They noted that more poor people and minorities live in cities – two groups that are among the least trusting segments of society. Little wonder that, since people who feel vulnerable or disadvantaged tend to find it riskier to trust because they’re not positioned to deal with what the study authors called “the consequences of misplaced trust.” But even after adjusting for those factors, researchers still found that city folks are less trusting than people who live in suburbs, small towns or rural areas.
They then turned to the issue of physical proximity, wondering if we might be less inclined to trust people in a more compressed living environment. And, though an analysis of the Pew survey data did find a slight tendency for levels of social trust to fall as population density (analyzed on a county-by-county basis) rises, the survey also found that people who describe where they live as a rural area are the most trusting; people who say they live in a large city are the least trusting; and those who say they live in a suburb or a small towns fall somewhere in between.
But it’s by no means clear that there is any causal connection in any of this. In fact, one of the reasons that smaller communities have long been thought to foster trust was that they were places where “everybody knows your name” (ironically, part of the theme song from “Cheers”, a bar in large-city Boston).
Regardless of trust levels, the Pew Research found that people living in a suburb near a big city were most likely to rate their community as an “excellent’ place to live (36%), narrowly squeezing aside their rural cousins, where 34% rated home that highly. That stands in some contrast to just 22% of those who lived in a large city – and, perhaps oddly, just 20% of those who, like those in the John Mellencamp song, live in a “small town”.
In short, the community type findings are a bit of a puzzle. When it comes to social trust, it’s true that there’s a significant difference between living in the city and the country – it’s just not – yet – entirely clear why.