The share of Americans who say they would prefer to live farther apart from both their neighbors and local stores, coffee shops, and parks—places where they get together with others—has grown in recent years. But amid all the reporting about social unrest and isolation, general trust—that is, how much someone trusts people in general—has grown, too.
Does this mean that decamping to the suburbs fosters social peace, that we like people more in the abstract when we see actual human beings less? Not necessarily. Comparing two sets of compatible survey questions provides some insight. The fairly common question about general trust, which asks respondents whether people can generally be trusted or whether one cannot be too careful around others, is a good measure of how people view humanity, regardless of whether they trust particular people in their personal lives. The second question asks whether people feel closely connected to others in their local community. Unlike the first question, this one pertains to a person’s neighbors rather than to a general view of humanity.
When the same survey asks both questions, one might suspect that two dominant groups would emerge: those who are trusting and close to people, and those who are not. Trust and friendship seem to go together, after all, just as loneliness and distrust go together. But reality is more complicated.
An American Enterprise Institute survey found that Americans fall into four similarly sized groups when it comes to these matters. First are the “communitarians,” who are close to people in their local neighborhood and trust people in general. Second are the “localists,” who are close to people in their neighborhood but tend to think you can’t be too careful in dealing with others. “Humanists” trust human beings in general but are not close to people in their neighborhood. And “isolationists” are both down on humanity and disconnected from people in their neighborhood. The groups differ from one another in views on the quality of their neighborhood and the prospects for its future; they volunteer at different rates and engage with their communities in different ways.
Where a person lives has little to do with these views. Neither does political ideology. These four groups emerge in cities, suburbs, and small towns. Communitarians and localists live closer to amenities like coffee shops and parks, but that doesn’t explain their differences with the others. And the groups roughly mirror one another on party affiliation and views of issues such as immigration, affirmative action, and the value of hard work. Humanists skew more liberal and localists a little more conservative than the national average, but the differences are too small to mean much.
Rather, the starkest difference among these four groups is seen between those who feel close to others in their neighborhoods and those who don’t. Communitarians and localists are more likely to rate their neighborhoods as excellent places to live and believe their communities will improve over the next five years. Humanists and isolationists living in the same community are not.
These differences come into sharper focus when we compare communitarians and humanists, both of whom say they trust people in general. Forty-six percent of communitarians say they live in an “excellent” community, compared with just 24 percent of humanitarians. While most Americans expect “things to stay the same” over the next five years, 41 percent of communitarians say their communities will improve, compared with 30 percent of humanists. Positive perceptions of one’s community are linked to other opinions, such as a belief in the value of hard work or that the economy is generally fair to most Americans.
This is not to ignore the explanatory power of general trust in humanity. For example, while localists and communitarians tend to have more in common with each other than with humanists or isolationists, communitarians tend to express much more positive views about their own areas. But while this finding comports with the sizeable body of research showing that trust is basically a universal good, it also shows that those with local friendships possess important similarities. They might join a bowling league, as Robert Putnam would recommend, or volunteer at a local charity. But they also engage with familiar faces when out and about in the neighborhood. Both types of engagement boost happiness and tend to reduce ideological extremism by focusing people’s attention on what is going on around them rather than on the abstract worries of the world.
Engagement in one’s community affects one’s perception of it and instills a sense of empowerment. Communitarians are three times more likely than humanists to say that people in their neighborhood are “very willing” to help others. Humanists are more than twice as likely as communitarians to say that they have no voice in their community’s affairs. As for coffee shops, which studies show facilitate informal get-togethers in which friendships are formed and relationships deepen, both communitarians and localists can be found in them on a weekly basis—considerably more often than humanists or isolationists. Likewise, communitarians and localists are much more likely than humanists and isolationists to believe that religious congregations contribute positively to their communities—and are also more likely to be members of one. Considerably more communitarians than humanists have friends or family over at least once a week, spend much more time out walking around their community, and attend a local event or community meeting, and they are nearly as likely to volunteer at a local nonprofit. Localists are closer to communitarians in these practices, and isolationists are closer to humanists.
Many Americans have decamped from urban and crowded neighborhoods to leafier and more spacious communities during the pandemic for good reasons. But substituting good feelings about humanity in general for getting to know the neighbor down the street will not in the end make us happier or more civically minded—nor will it make our new neighborhood as healthy as it could be.
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