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I'll note for other readers of Hacker News who don't know (and thus don't trust) the domain of this submitted article that it is actually a syndicated news story from the Associated Press, and I would have to say that I think the article is well reported. (In other words, I trust the statistics behind the article, which come from the federal government's National Social Survey.)

The article includes some dire warnings about decline of social trust in the United States during the last forty years, and also some ideas about how social trust can increase. "People do get a little more trusting as they age. But beginning with the baby boomers, each generation has started off adulthood less trusting than those who came before them." I daresay it is correct that MOST Americans become more trusting as they age. In my middle age, I feel very comfortable both in the community I live in and as I travel about the United States. (I have been to all of the fifty United States, and to other territories of my country.)

To take the article seriously, and to suggest a possible help that was not suggested in the article, I will propose for your thoughtful discussion (I trust you here on Hacker News) one policy that might help. Let's take care of the economic gap problem mentioned in the article and some other factors that harm social trust by building all of the public school systems in the United States on the foundational principle of family choice. I have seen an example of how this policy could help where I live. Minnesota, where I now live and where I grew up, has had largely equal per-capita funding for public school pupils statewide since the 1970s. That reduces the effect of family income differences on the availability of adequately funded schools. The state law change that made most school funding come from general state appropriations rather than from local property taxes was called the "Minnesota miracle."[1] Today most funding for schools is distributed by the state government on a per-pupil enrollment basis.[2]

The funding reform in the 1970s was followed up by two further reforms in the 1980s. First, the former compulsory instruction statute in Minnesota was ruled unconstitutional in a court case involving a homeschooling family, and a new compulsory instruction statute explicitly allows more nonpublic school alternatives for families who seek those. Second, the Legislature, pushed by the then Governor, set up statewide open enrollment[3] and the opportunity for advanced learners to attend up to two years of college while still high school students on the state's dime.[4] And Minnesota also has the oldest charter school statute in the United States.[5]

Parents in Minnesota now have more power to shop than parents in most states. That gets closer to the ideal of detecting the optimum education environment for each student (by parents observing what works for each of their differing children) and giving it to them by open-enrolling in another school district (my school district has inbound open-enrollment students from forty-one other school districts of residence) or by homeschooling, or by postsecondary study at high school age, or by exercising other choices. And I think that builds social trust by making school communities more nearly communities of choice than communities of compulsion.

The educational results of Minnesota schools are well above the meager results of most United States schools, and almost competitive (but not fully competitive) with the better schools in the newly industrialized countries of east Asia and southeast Asia. And the social trust level in Minnesota seems to be above the United States national average, although I'd have to check the National Social Survey data to be sure about that. A good country to compare in this regard to the United States would be the Netherlands, which by its constitution has had pervasive school choice for the last century.

[1] http://www.mnhs.org/library/tips/history_topics/18public.htm...

[2] http://www.house.leg.state.mn.us/hrd/pubs/mnschfin.pdf


[3] http://education.state.mn.us/MDE/StuSuc/EnrollChoice/index.h...

[4] http://education.state.mn.us/MDE/StuSuc/CollReadi/PSEO/index...

[5] http://www.amazon.com/Zero-Chance-Passage-Pioneering-Charter...

I trust the reports, and I trust the data, but the trend has been pretty obvious, I'd wager, and predictable for some time now.

People in the suburbs increasingly migrate to cul-de-sac communities, which isolate them from the rest of the world, to make them feel safer, depriving their children of the much-needed contact with a diverse population that builds trust.

Beyond that, the news is more and more pervasive, and more and more sensationalist than it's ever been. Every tragedy is made public, and the more grave and more egregious, the more media coverage it gets. People grow up believing that child abductions are the norm, and even likely, when the reality is that stranger abductions are less likely than they've ever been -- but the Amber Alert system (at least in the DC area here) broadcasts on highways, making it impossible to believe that a kid isn't abducted every two seconds.

Humans are built to be paranoid. Historically, the person who heard a strange noise outside their shelter and didn't react was mauled by a bear, or lion, or what have you, while the more alert human that took to defensive measures was more likely to survive. Having established our positions as apex predators, in cities this is far less likely to be needed, but our brains still seek danger patterns, cling to them, and those instincts aren't able to be quashed by rationality or statistics. We see something like the Newtown shooting and instinctively feel that all our children are in immediate danger, despite its actual unlikeliness. The media catches another school shooting and reinforces it even more in our brains that there is a very real danger, and breeds distrust and paranoia, triggering an instinct to be even more isolationist, and more paranoid, breeding more and more distrust, which further fuels the cycle for the next news article we see reinforcing our beliefs.

This isn't meant to blame the news, or humans, or any particular person at all, but the idea is that we should all at least attempt to be more data-driven, more pragmatic, and to try and find data that doesn't agree with our assumptions. It's harder than it sounds. In most humans, the brain simply rejects data that doesn't agree with its pre-formed hypotheses, but scientists are better equipped here than the average human, as we revel in data, enjoy being proven wrong, and strive towards better results, not just a reinforcement of the bad data we already believe.

I have to disagree with your characterization of people in suburbs. The only anecdote of trusting behavior given in the article was of a rural farmer in an isolated area - and it was given in contrast to people from urban New York or New Jersey coming up and being amazed about it.

Here's another hypothesis - tribal or rural cultures will be more trusting by nature. Human beings are naturally paranoid but NOT of each other. If you are competing with other species and the environment for survival, it doesn't make sense to view your own species as a threat. Indeed, it benefits your family or tribe if you all cooperate. However, in densely populated urban environments, your competition is all human beings. If you are metaphorically eaten or taken advantage of, it will be by another human. It's much less likely in a city that you will die because of exposure, or weather or a wild animal. Thus, because the threat is from people, you must be more wary of people.

I'm not super confident about this of course - it's probably both simplistic and wrong on a few levels, but I think whatever the answer is, it's not just that urban people are trusting and rural people are paranoid.

I may have overcharacterized, but I was specifically referring to those in cul-de-sac neighborhoods, not all suburbanites in general.

More traditional gridded suburbs, especially those with large communal parks, probably bely the behavior I described, but I'm mostly speaking intuitively on the matter, as I'm not aware of any studies.

In short, I think we're probably both right. ;-)

Oh yes, cul-de-sacs have a mind destroying force ... Really, is this what science is giving us?

There is existing data that strongly suggests corroboration here. Isolationist and/or segregated communities breed distrust of those outside the community. Cul de sacs are but a softer implementation of that segregation. Buying trends indicate that in most cases, cul de sac purchases are done with less diversity in mind -- whites buy in predominately white cul de sacs, minorities do the same; which just compounds the self-reinforcing price strata already existing within neighborhood communities.

That said, despite your low-brow dismissal, I'm not suggesting that cul de sacs are evil. They are very good at building close-knit, but very small communities. Kids that play in cul de sacs generally do so in plain view of everybody else, and with less traffic interruption, encouraging play and discouraging deviant behavior.

Cul de sac kids have a greater sense of trust with those within the immediate community, but at the expense of less trust for those outside that community -- just as isolated communities tend to do.

[1] - http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1523709 [2] - http://chd.sagepub.com/content/20/2/229.full.pdf+html

It is not a low brow dismissal, appealing to a HN meme doesn't save your position. :) A cul-de-sac is hardly an isolationist community. If anything you could probably go find data these people are more naive or trusting than the norm. Your position is just a rehash of the unquestioned assumptions of "suburbanites" that I think probably have a little but more to do, ironically, with "media conditioning" than even you might think.

My position doesn't apply to all, or even most suburbanites, nor is it entirely critical. I don't know why you're taking offense to it, especially offense that you haven't bothered to refute.

Cul de sacs are insular, and that's considered a selling point of them. I'll grant that they're not quite as extreme as gated communities, but that they exist for the purposes of insulating one from traffic otherwise associated with more frequented byways. That isn't a contrivance, it's their stated purpose. It shouldn't come as a shock that insulation from use as a thoroughfare would extend to insulation from outside contact, as that's the obvious result.

They are "insular" in a far less dramatic and hyperbolic sense.

You seem to suggest those poor, sheltered suburbanites are al wrong. So should I have believed the guy at the bus stop when he told me he would sell a Rolex for $100 or the nice man at the gas station that asked for money for gas in his car with a long story, though he had no car in sight?

It's nice and hip to just imply people are not worldly but it may be that their distrust is justified.

You said some nice things about science ... But which set of assumptions really need to be examined here?

I didn't suggest that they were wrong. I suggested that their environment isn't conducive to fostering trust of 'outsiders'. I don't know if that's good or bad, nor do I know especially if it's better or worse to trust someone who just happens to live near you.

My thought is that a healthy distrust is perhaps the way to go, but that's a judgement on values, and shouldn't be relied upon as advice.

> depriving their children of the much-needed contact with a diverse population that builds trust.

I think the evidence is that more diversity brings less trust.[1]

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_D._Putnam#Diversity_and...

Putnam's data aside, we've seen the Contact Hypothesis show true in regards to homosexuals. Once a pariah, a generation of contact with homosexuals has trended towards acceptance.

Also interesting is that in Putnam's hypothesis, the last bullet relating to diversity indicates media influence -- "More time spent watching television and more agreement that 'television is my most important form of entertainment'".

I'm interested in Putnam's work though, but I'd like to see if other causes can't be seen as contributing factors. Thanks for the link.

Thank you for the additional links, but by my tally this article only cites two statistics without bothering to explore how the statistics could be irrelevant to the overall point that the article is making. I find the generalized claim that overall "trust" has declined to be an extremely difficult point to support. I would have appreciated a more thoroughgoing portrait of the point than just two data points and some generalized citations that social scientists "think x".

In my opinion this is a great example of a misuse of statistics. I'm not saying the article's claims are incorrect, but it did a poor job of convincing me of anything.

What about that whole thing about geographic proximity to the school in question?

How does one reconcile a particular choice if it involves a long commute or relocation? And do families living in close proximity receive priority enrollment over students residing outside of a given district?

I don't know. I know you have an agenda with homeschooling but I'm not really seeing how this actually connects in a serious way to what the article is talking about. It seems more complex than this, no?

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