Trust reflects a person’s perception of goodwill and benign intent from others. People trusting each other is essential not only for individual well-being, but also for social cohesion, economic growth, and democracy. Trust is especially important for immigrants and for societies with large foreign-born populations due to its role in promoting social integration.
Canada is a relatively high trust country. Data from Statistics Canada’s 2003, 2008, and 2013 General Social Surveys (GSS) consistently show that more than half of Canadians believe that “most people can be trusted.” In contrast, when the same question is asked globally, only 37% have the same faith in others (World Values Survey 2010-2014). Canada is also a country of immigrants. Foreign-born individuals make up about one in five, or 21% of Canada’s total population. While Canada’s points system helps select a group of very trusting immigrants, many of those who come through refugee and family reunification programs tend to have lower trust than the native-born (see Figure 1).
If immigrants start out with lower trust, do they gain trust after living in Canada, where people are relatively more trusting? When it comes to the origins of trust, there are two theoretical arguments: the cultural perspective and the experiential perspective. Scholars of the cultural perspective believe that people learn trust from primary socialization early in life, and that learned trust changes very little in adulthood and throughout life. From the experiential perspective, scholars argue that people make trust decisions based directly on social experiences and therefore trust changes in response to different social situations. At the heart of this debate is the question of when people learn trust, and whether learned trust changes from one situation to another.
Accordingly, to determine whether Canada’s high trust culture has any influence on immigrants, there is a need to make a distinction between immigrants who landed as adults and those who landed as children or adolescents and therefore are still undergoing primary socialization. If trust is cultural, we would expect that immigrants who came at a younger age and who were socialized within Canada’s high trust culture would be more trusting, while only those who came at an older age and had already finished their primary socialization outside Canada would have lower trust, reflecting the cultural footprints of their country of origin. If trust is experiential, then immigrants are expected to respond to the Canadian experience similarly, regardless of the age when they came to live permanently. Therefore, the trust gap is less likely to exist.
Analyzing data from Statistics Canada’s 2014 GSS, I find that immigrants who came before age fifteen have 70% greater odds of trusting people in the neighborhood and 50% greater odds of trusting strangers than those who came at age fifteen or after, controlling for other demographic factors (see Figure 2A & 2B).
Taken together, the significant gaps demonstrate that there is a positive effect of Canada’s high trust culture, but this effect is limited only to child and adolescent immigrants who came to Canada during their primary socialization period. The overall result lends strong support for the cultural theory of trust.