Q&A: Travel broadens the mind, swells trust in others

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The more countries we visit, the more we come to trust people in general, says some new research. Psychologists found the breadth of countries traveled meant broader trust toward others, while the amount of time spent in a given country did not.

For today’s Q&A, we talk with Jiyin Cao, a researcher at Northwestern University, about her new findings.

In this study, you discovered having more foreign travel experiences builds “generalized trust.” What is that?

It’s about how people think of others as usually nice and kind. There’s really two types of trust: one is generalized and the other is specific. The first is a generic belief in humanity as a whole, whereas the other has a specific target. For example, trust toward friends, family and colleagues is specific to them. But that specific trust doesn’t generalize to other people. For instance, how much we trust our families has nothing to do with how much we trust our colleagues.

 

So the more general form of trust is important when we meet someone we don’t know.

Locals from Hawaii. Image: Steve Evans, Wikimedia Commons.

Locals from Hawaii. Image: Steve Evans, Wikimedia Commons.

You also found the breadth of foreign experiences to be important, rather than the depth of foreign experiences. How did you find this out?

After asking students to trust each other with money, we asked how many countries they’ve traveled to and how long they’ve spent in them. We found that the number of countries strongly predicts the amount of trust a person had in the money game, but also that the amount of time spent in a given country does not.

 

So we now believe that you can have a lot of depth of foreign experience by traveling in Italy for half a year, for example, but that would only increase your trust toward Italians. You see something similar in studies of intergroup contact. More interactions with African Americans can increase people’s liking for African Americans and reduce stereotypes about them, but it would have nothing to do with how they think of Asians.

What were some things that high-trusting folks tended to say?

We used a questionnaire that said things like, “most people are trustworthy,” “most people are nice and kind,” and “most people are honest.” We think when you have higher agreement with these statements, you’ll have higher trust in others.

Sunset at a stupa, Nyaung U, Myanmar. Image: Michael Coghlan.

Sunset in Nyaung U, Myanmar. Image: Michael Coghlan.

Why are foreign experiences so good at increasing trust? What could be underlying the process?

We think there’s a very important mechanism here. Usually we would say that similarities between two persons are critical: people trust those whom they’re similar with, but not whom they’re different from. The attractiveness of similarity has been supported thousands of times by social scientists. What we want to say here is – if you’re talking about specific trust, this is true. But if you’re talking about more generalized trust, you need to have a diversity of experiences in order to achieve that. Diversity is important.

What do you think we should take away from this research?

I think we should encourage people to travel more! It’s such a unique way to increase trust and just to have a better view of others. These days, it’s getting much easier to travel. Especially for young people, studying abroad can be a critical experience in their lives that changes their view of the world and others very dramatically.

The study, “Does Travel Broaden the Mind? Breadth of Foreign Experiences Increases Generalized Trust,” was published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Featured Image: A woman playing the angklung, an Indonesian instrument. Credit: Riza Nugraha.

Editor’s Note: This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Edit: The second question has been edited from the original version to clarify the section’s meaning. It said, “Why might that be?” It now says, “How did you find this out?”