nameisWhat does it take to get you to welcome a stranger to stay in your home, or let someone you don’t know borrow your car, or invite a random person over for dinner? Is the promise of earning (or saving) money enough? For many people the idea of trusting strangers to use their stuff is not worth the potential financial gain. But still the sharing economy is growing dramatically. How are we getting over this fear and trusting people enough to share with strangers?

I was going to followup my Home Exchange Makes You Happy post by writing about another report with new statistics about sharing economy lodging, but then I came across more information about trust and was inspired to write about that topic instead. (Don’t worry, I’ll get back to those exciting lodging statistics soon).

Can People be Trusted?

If you read my Home Exchange survey post you might recall that among survey respondents, 75% believe “most people are trustworthy.” The percentage of people who think most folks are trustworthy varied quite a by country:

United Kingdom87%
United States71%

As I pointed out, this level of trust is pretty strikingly high compared to a few other survey results I found. Well now I have even more evidence that most Americans (and lots of folks in other countries too) don’t trust other people. Home exchangers are outliers in their level of trust.

In a 2010 survey in the UK found that 56% of the British agree that most people can be trusted. And I already wrote about the 2013 Guardian study which found that 54% of people in the UK believe most people can be trusted. This may sound low, but the Brits look blindly trusting compared with Americans.

pinocchioA Wired article in April of this year tackled the question of trust in the sharing economy in some depth. They included statistics from two surveys of Americans’ views about trust. A 2012 survey by the National Opinion Research Center found that 32% of respondents agreed that people can generally be trusted. That number was 46% in 1972. So as a country we are becoming less trusting of one another. An October 2013 AP-GfK poll found a similar lack of trust among Americans: “just 41 percent of respondents express ‘a great deal’ or ‘quite a bit’ of trust in the people they hire to work in their home, only 30 percent trust the cashiers who swipe their credit or debit card, and a mere 19 percent trust ‘people you meet when you are traveling away from home.'”

These are pretty abysmal numbers. And I suspect the super low percentage of trust while traveling includes some racism and/or xenophobia. Considering that home exchange involves traveling, the high levels of trust among swappers is even more impressive.

Putting all of this together we have somewhere between 19% and 33% of Americans trusting other people. Kinda makes me wonder how we all manage to open our doors and face the world each day.hiding in closet

Using data from trust surveys (conducted between 1995 and 2009), ASEP/JDS created a map of how trusting each country is. Check out the map on their website, it’s interactive if you want to zoom in to specific regions or countries.


These scores are all relative so they don’t tie them out to the percentages of people who believe others are trustworthy, but this gives an interesting global snapshot of views on trust.

How Can We Share Without Trusting?

The sharing economy is based, at least somewhat, on trusting other people. We’re trusting people in our homes, with our cars, with our pets, and more. I suspect that while in general Americans (and others) feel a sense of distrust for strangers, when presented with a bit of information, perhaps some reviews, and the opportunity to exchange email, a phone call or a hand shake with someone, the likelihood of trusting that person goes up significantly. There’s some evidence for this increased value placed on in person interactions from the RelayRides experience that I wrote about back in June. Relay Rides is a U.S. based company whose business model has evolved from anonymous peer to peer rental (using unlocking technology) to a more personal interaction where owners and renters must meet to exchange keys. The RelayRides CEO reports that this personal interaction, where car owners and renters meet before the rental begins, has led to much more satisfaction on both sides.

And no matter how much the media likes to play up and sensationalize the incidence of crime, most people in America experience the vast majority of their interactions with other people as positive. We’re not getting cheated out of money, robbed at every street corner, charged extra on our credit cards, or tricked into handing over money under false pretenses.

The Pew Research Center found a strong correlation between trust and perceptions of crime and corruption in a 2007 global study. They suggest the results are causal, but reading the report it seems this is about perceptions, not actual crime/corruption. When we perceive our peers (or the government) to be corrupt and/or criminals we trust others less. This was true even when crime rates didn’t line up with levels of trust. I think this suggests that perception of crime/corruption leads to perception of trust.

From all this I conclude that the relationship between the sharing economy and trust is a two way street. More trusting people are more likely to engage in home exchanges, car sharing, and other similar collaborative consumption services. But at the same time the experience of participating in these services is probably increasing people’s level of trust.  Sharing positive experiences with strangers builds positive views of trust.