BOSS Blog 3: Trust and distrust in society

BOSS Blog 3 by Gert Jan Hofstede

In BOSS Blog 1, I mentioned the authoritative study by Beugelsdijk and Welzel (2018) on cohorts of people born in over 100 countries from 1900 to 2000 that found there is substantial change in national culture. In terms of Hofstede dimensions:

  • Across the 20th century, individualism goes up (and power distance goes down)
  • Across the 20th century, long-term orientation goes down (and indulgence goes up)

In BOSS blog 2, I speculated on what these changes mean for politics and societies. I speculated that given enough trust, a looser fabric can be beneficial to the occurrence of new collaborative arrangements. Here, I zoom in on the social fabric within individual societies.


Beugelsdijk and Welzel found something else that I hardly discussed yet. They distinguished a third dimension of culture that they termed Trust vs Distrust, and found that Distrust has gone up slightly over the 20th century. This dimension is related to anxiety. Anxiety at the national level would be called ‘neuroticism’ at the level of the individual. Neuroticism was found by Hofstede & McCrae (2004) to correlate, at country level, with the dimensions of culture Uncertainty Avoidance and Masculinity.

Trust across society

My hunch is that this culture change is unevenly distributed across the people in each society. Those that have schooling, economic welfare, and a working social life can afford to trust in human ability to act responsibly for the earth’s future. They can afford to contribute to stewardship. Conversely, those who lack schooling, have uncertain jobs and an ill-functioning social network are more likely to be anxious, and perhaps hide in defensive avoidance. There might also be envy of the ‘elite’, used by populist politicians. Think of the use of ‘Gutmensch’ as a negative label.

Climate change perceptions

Consider the findings of Poortinga et al (2019). Using data from the European Social Survey Round 8 (n = 44,387), they studied climate change perceptions across the EU. They conclude: “We show that some of the associations are remarkably consistent across the 23 countries (…). People who place themselves on the right-hand side of the political spectrum, have a lower level of education, and prioritise self-enhancement over self-transcendence values are more likely to hold climate sceptical views, perceive fewer negative impacts, and are less likely to be concerned about climate change in all or a great majority of countries”.

Division in society

I am not the first person to comment on the new divide in societies, between those who can surf the information age waves and those who drown in them. What I am suggesting here is that this phenomenon could be one of the factors driving such a deep division in our societies that it is visible in a cultural sense. For instance, to take one major threat, this division is deeply worrying when it comes to fighting climate change. It used to be “Erst kommt das Fressen, dann die Moral”. Now it is: first we need a community; then we can cure the climate. We need everyone on board.

Boulding's Spaceship Earth

This is no new thought. Consider this quote from Kenneth Boulding, 1966: “The consequences of earth becoming a space ship for the social system are profound and little understood. It is clear that much human behavior and many human institutions in the past, which were appropriate to all infinite earth, are entirely inappropriate to a small closed space ship… One of the major problems of social science is how to devise institutions which will combine this overall homeostatic control with individual freedom and mobility. I believe this problem to be not insoluble, though not yet solved”.

I believe that we can move towards enough cultural cohesion for stewardship of ‘spaceship Earth’; but fifty-three years after Kenneth Boulding, this can still not be taken for granted. We, the crew of Spaceship Earth, are running around in all directions. How can we change our course?

Gert Jan


Sjoerd Beugelsdijk and Chris Welzel (2018) “Dimensions and Dynamics of National Culture: Synthesizing Hofstede With Inglehart”. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 49(10) 1469-1505. DOI: 10.1177/00220221 18798508

Kenneth Boulding (1966) The Economics of the coming Spaceship Earth. New York.

Geert Hofstede & Robert R. McCrae (2004). Personality and culture revisited: Linking traits and dimensions of culture. Cross-cultural research38(1), 52-88.

Wouter Poortinga, Lorraine Whitmarsh, Linda Steg, Gisela Böhm, Stephen Fisher (2019) “Climate change perceptions and their individual-level determinants: A cross-European analysis”. Global Environmental Change 55 25-35,