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Mishler and Rose: What are the origins of political trust

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Mishler and Rose. 2001. What are the origins of political trust?. Comparative Political Studies 33 (February).

In Brief

An empirical test of many of the ideas brought up in Jackman and Miller (1996): is trust endogenous (institutionally created) or exogenous (cultural)? Tests find evidence that institutions strongly influence trust, especialy micro-level theories.

"Popular trust in political institutions is vital to democracy, but in post-Communist countries, popular distrust for institutions is widespread, and prospects for generating increased political trust are uncertain given disagreements over its origins. Cultural theories emphasizing exogenous determinants of trust compete with institutional theories emphasizing endogenous influences, and both can be further differentiated into micro and macro variants. Competing hypotheses drawn from these theories are tested using data from 10 post-Communist countries in Eastern and Central Europe and the former Soviet Union. Aggregate data on economic and political performance are combined with survey data on interpersonal and political trust, political socialization experiences, and individual evaluations of national performance. Results strongly support the superiority of institutional explanations of the origins of political trust, especially microlevel explanations, while providing little support for either micro-cultural or macro-cultural explanations. This encourages cautious optimism about the potential for nurturing popular trust in new democratic institutions."


Exogenous trust is culturally determined, meaning that people learn early in life beliefs about other people. These beliefs are "rooted in cultural norms and communicated through early-life socialization." Endogenous trust is "the expected utility of institutions performing satisfactorily;" whether you think institutions will enforce contracts changes your expected utility of making an agreement, e.g. Thus, a clear hypothesis: if insitutions are more important, then the rapid change in institutions in eastern Europe should create a clear shift in trust.

Macro/micro distinction in both cultural and institutional theories (table on 34):

  • Macro cultural theories say that cultural norms and values will create trust levels. Micro theories would focus on individual socialization experiences.
  • Macro institutional theories would focus on general impressions of how the complete institutional system operates. Micro theories would look at individual evaluations of how well institutions are serving each person's needs, whatever those may be.

Four (not mutually exclusive) hypotheses:

H1 (national culture): "Trust in political institutions varies between countries rather than among individuals..."

H2 (individual socialization): "Trust in institutions varies ... according to individuals' trust in others as shaped by their places in the social structure."

H3 (government performance): Trust in institutions varies across rather than within countries in proportion to the success of government policies and the character of political institutions.

H4 (individual evaluations): Trust in institutions varies within and across countries in accordance with both individual attitudes and values and the social and economic positions individuals occupy" (page 37).

No matter which theory you like, they would all predict low levels of trust in the first years of the new regimes after Communism. The institutional theories, however, would predict changes in trust levels within a reasonable amount of time, but the cultural theories would predict change only over decades or generations.