Trust, happiness, and pro-social behavior

Produced as part of the Incentives for behaviour change CCCEP research programme theme

Cooperative behavior is essential for societies to thrive and for humanity to address local and global social dilemmas. This paper combines several large-scale surveys with different strategies for identifying trust, to shed new light on the determinants of cooperative behavior.

The authors provide evidence indicating that the level of trust between individuals that maximizes well-being is above the level that maximizes income. Greater trust is also linked to more cooperative and pro-social behaviors – i.e. behaviors that benefit others or society as a whole, including behaviors by individuals that enhance the provision of ‘global public goods’ such as climate change mitigation.

The results show that individuals may enjoy being cooperative at a level above that which would lead them to maximize their income, and this makes them happier. These results are consistent with theories that show people derive a ‘warm glow’ from contributing to a public good and support calls for measures aimed at promoting trust among new generations, for the sake of society, individuals and advancing collective action against problems including climate change.

Key points for decision-makers

  • Income-maximising trust is a level of trust that leads to profitable opportunities being taken up.
  • The authors used data from the European Social Survey; data for Sweden from the Society Opinion Media – which contains an extensive set of pro-social outcomes, including one of the broadest ranges of environmentally-friendly behaviors and attitudes among comparable surveys; and data for Switzerland – a country in which citizens engage often in civic duties such as voting – from the Swiss Household Panel.
  • The authors are especially interested in the mass of ‘overly trusting’ individuals – those whose trust beliefs are above the income-maximizing level and who may have others taking advantage of them.
  • They find that high levels of trust can be explained by such individuals caring about their own well-being rather than just their potential income.
  • Further, greater trust relates to a higher proclivity to engage in pro-social and pro-environmental behavior, from which they may derive extra happiness for instance through the warm glow of giving. The results on pro-environmental behavior are consistent with evidence showing that lessons on cooperative behavior from the local commons may also extend to the global commons.
  • The findings support calls for measures aimed at promoting trust among new generations, which may be not only beneficial for society but also for the individuals who would have been educated to trust more, as they may become happier adults.
  • Further, the findings point to the importance of leveraging people’s proclivity to engage in pro-social behaviors and their enjoyment in doing so, to further address local and global issues, such as climate change mitigation, that require pro-sociality and collective action.