Research co-authored by Emeritus Professor John Ermisch has corroborated previous studies that uncovered a correlation between the strength of an individual’s family ties and their distrust of strangers.
The paper, co-authored by Diego Gambetta, Sergio Lo Iacono and Burak Sonmez, replicated a binary trust-game experiment that originally took place in 2007. Designed by Ermisch and Gambetta, the game tested trustworthiness among a sample of British participants.
The more recent experiment involved an online game with US participants which tested how trusting or trustworthy a player was, based on their in-game actions.
After playing the game, participants provided information about their family ties and demographics. The intensity of family ties was measured by the frequency of contact with a close relative e.g. a parent or adult child.
The experiment was further manipulated to create low-trust and high-trust environments – contexts which either encouraged or discouraged trust.
The findings were consistent with a causal relationship between the strength of an individual’s family ties and their distrust of strangers, but only in an environment which encouraged trust and trustworthiness.
Professor Ermisch explains that people with weak family ties are more trusting of strangers than people with strong family ties, but only when there is a sufficiently large number of strangers who are trustworthy.
In a context in which trustworthy strangers are scarce, people can only learn not to trust, regardless of the strength of their family ties. In such a world, the difference between those with strong and weak family ties should not emerge.
The findings support the emancipatory theory of trust, developed by Toshio Yamagishi, which explains the mechanisms underpinning the link between strength of family ties and trust in strangers.
The weaker family ties are, the more people have an incentive to look for strangers on whom they can rely, giving them more opportunities to discern who is trustworthy and who is not. Not as able to afford a defensive position as those who enjoy strong family ties, these individuals will be more inclined to risk putting their trust in strangers.
Meanwhile, those who strongly rely on family ties are likely to attribute an individual's trustworthy behaviour to monitoring and sanctioning by family members rather than to an individual disposition to be trustworthy. This prevents the ability to assess trustworthiness at an individual level, hindering the development of trust in strangers.
The research could also shed further light on classic ethnographic studies from the past century, which describe how subcultures fostering tight bonds within families or small groups make cooperation harder to be achieved.