Yesterday in class, I was forced to discuss a violation of the university’s Honor Code (which students have to study and sign and which, like most such codes, explains to students they can’t steal one another’s work and they can’t plagiarize other sources, whether in print or from the internet). The students’ view was that the Code was there to protect the credibility of their education in the eyes of others and to serve as an incentive to do their own work.
My own view, which I discussed with them, is a bit different: the Code is a condition of their membership and participation in an intellectual community. Basically, it represents a kind of trust in their fellow students (they’ll discuss and debate issues with one another, inside and outside the classroom, and not violate their mutual trust by stealing from one another) and a trust in the ideas that have been developed and disseminated by others (which should serve as the basis of their own thinking, and be appropriately cited).
I was reminded of that discussion when someone [ht: sm] sent me the link to a new piece of research by Jean M. Twenge, W. Keith Campbell, and Nathan Carter, who found that Americans’ trust in others and confidence in social institutions are at their lowest point in over three decades.
“Compared to Americans in the 1970s-2000s, Americans in the last few years are less likely to say they can trust others, and are less likely to believe that institutions such as government, the press, religious organizations, schools, and large corporations are ‘doing a good job,'” explains psychological scientist and lead researcher Jean M. Twenge of San Diego State University.
Twenge and colleagues W. Keith Campbell and Nathan Carter, both of the University of Georgia, found that as income inequality and poverty rose, public trust declined, indicating that socioeconomic factors may play an important role in driving this downward trend in public trust:
“With the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, people trust each other less,” says Twenge. “There’s a growing perception that other people are cheating or taking advantage to get ahead, as evidenced, for example, by the ideas around ‘the 1%’ in the Occupy protests.”
Twenge and colleagues were interested in understanding how cultural change over the last 40 years has affected social capital — the cooperative relationships that are critical for maintaining a democratic society – in which public trust plays an important role.
To examine trust over time, the researchers looked at data from two large, nationally representative surveys of people in the US: the General Social Survey of adults (1972-2012) and the Monitoring the Future survey of 12th graders (1976-2012). Together, the surveys included data from nearly 140,000 participants. Both surveys included questions designed to measure trust in other people and questions intended to gauge confidence in large institutions.
The data showed, for example, that while 46% of adult Americans agreed that “most people can be trusted” in 1972-1974, only 33% agreed in 2010-2012. And this finding was mirrored by data from 12th graders – while 32% agreed that “most people can be trusted” in 1976-1978, only 18% did so in 2010-2012.
Confidence in institutions rose and fell in waves, with respondents in both surveys reporting high confidence in institutions in the late 1980s and again in the early 2000s, with confidence then declining to reach its lowest point in the early 2010s.
This decline in confidence applied across various institutions, including the press/news media, medicine, corporations, universities, and Congress. The notable exception was confidence in the military, which increased in both surveys.
After accounting for the year the survey data were collected, the researchers found that institutional confidence seemed to track rising rates of income inequality and poverty.
Clearly, adhering to an Honor Code in the university is pushing back against a trend of growing inequality and declining trust in the larger society.