Testing social trust in Mexico

By Charles Montgomery

What happens when you challenge hundreds of young Mexicans to reach out to strangers? Something amazing: they change their view of a society that is chronically low in trust.

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I was invited to give a talk to several hundred youth at the International Youth Conference in Queretaro, Mexico, in January. With a captive audience of 500, this was a great chance to try a new version of our Old Friends experiment.

If you haven’t read about it before, Old Friends challenges participants to get up close and personal with strangers, and then surveys them on social trust.

Here’s what happened:

First, we divided the conference audience into two groups.

I instructed the audience on the left side of the auditorium to keep quiet and talk to nobody for a couple of minutes.

The audience on the right side of the auditorium got radically different instructions. I challenged each of them thus:

1/ stand up and reach out to a complete stranger.

2/ tell that person something that made you happy in public recently.

3/ pretend that you are good old friends who have not seen each other for a long time, and take a selfie of you being happily reunited.

queretaro talk vs no talk

Group 1 (left) were instructed not to talk, while Group 2 reached out to strangers.









After this short exercise,  both groups were instructed to answer the following question, taped to the bottom of their chairs:

“If you dropped your wallet out in the city today, what are the chances you would get it back if a stranger found it?”

The results?

Audience members who did not connect with strangers figured, on average, that there was only a 28.5 percent chance of getting their wallet back.

This wasn’t such a surprise. Social trust is extremely low in Mexico. People have strong relations with family and neighbours, but they do not trust the police, or the government, or strangers. There are many reasons for this low social trust, ranging from corruption to the influence of organized crime. But our work in other cities convinced me that social trust is also mediated by casual, positive social contact with strangers. That’s why the next result did not surprise me:

Audience members had brief moments of connection with strangers believed they had a 50 percent chance of getting their wallet back! In other words their trust in other citizens was more than 50 percent higher than youth who did not connect.

This result is supported by neuroscience research which finds that even brief trust-building encounters have an immediate hormonal effect, boosting feelings of trust in other strangers. This really matters in Queretaro, because our cities influence the frequency and quality of our connections. Queretaro, like other Mexican cities, has a lovely, mixed-use, historical downtown: the kind of place where people walk, intermingle, and just hang out among the exquisite public plazas and arcades. But in the last 20 years Queretaro has traded this form of urban design for auto-dependent dispersal: just the kind of development that corrodes social trust.

The assembled youth understood that connection. We hope they can educate their city-builders.

I leave you with images of these bold youth connecting with complete strangers, complements of the team at Todo Es Posible:

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