By Thierry Malleret, economist
By Thierry Malleret, economist

If the myriad of concerns raised at this year’s Davos were distilled into just one, it would be “distrust.” A survey published at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting concludes that we are witnessing a “global implosion” in people’s trust of almost all institutions.

Because trust is (1) the fuel that propels the engine of economic growth and (2) the glue that binds societies together, when it breaks down, the resulting sentiments of fear and resentment provoke both lower economic welfare by putting a spoke into the wheels of growth and higher polarization. Trust matters because it is both the most valued and the most intangible form of social capital. Countries like Switzerland that possess a high level of social trust are consistently better at delivering more inclusive economic growth.


A strong connection exists between distrust and wellness (or rather “un-wellness”). In the 19th century, the novelist George Eliot was already asking: “What loneliness is more lonely than distrust?”

Today, we know that the decline in social trust correlates with the rising epidemic of loneliness –  particularly marked in the Anglo-Saxon world. In 1985, one in 10 Americans confessed that they had no friends with whom to discuss important matters. Twenty years later, that number had increased to one in four people. Today, 40 percent of Americans report that they are lonely.

The younger generation is the most distrustful of all. According to the Pew Research Centre, only about 19 percent of U.S. millennials believe other people can be trusted. This matters a great deal because distrust is self-destructive: it leads to a decline in community bonds and an increase in cynicism. It ends up isolating people, making them lonelier and corroding their wellbeing.

New research in biology shows that loneliness makes us unwell in a way that extends beyond psychological pain by also inflicting damage on our cells. The main reasons are twofold: (1) In lonely people, genes that code for the body’s inflammation response are turned on to a degree not seen in non-lonely people; (2) At the same time, researchers see down-regulated, or suppressed, activity in a block of genes involved in fending off against viral infections.

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