View from
The Center

Why Trust Prevents Nations from Tearing Themselves Apart


“The last time a leading Danish politician was murdered was 1286. It’s not war with your foreign enemies [that matters]; it’s internally, in political stability.”

The backbone of a happy, healthy society is rooted in how much its citizens trust one another.

If one place in the world could teach a few things about creating a peaceful society, it would be Denmark. It consistently ranks as one of the happiest and most trusting nations in the world, and it rarely faces serious internal strife. This is not to say that civil violence is unknown; however, in comparison to the ever-recurring riots and political tensions in the United States, Denmark has been an uncontested beacon of tranquility.

There are, of course, ongoing questions about how to deal with ever-changing societal dynamics. For example, in a current global landscape that has seen the largest movement of migrants ever—mostly to Western countries—there have arisen significant questions about the impact that migrants have on a country’s sense of identity, security, happiness, and trust. Denmark has had to face this question and is certainly not alone in this regard. Other matters in the country also cannot be overlooked—growing inequality, economic instability, and geopolitical matters of national security. Yet, overall, Denmark has not torn itself apart and experienced civil unrest in ways resembling even half of what the United States does on a regular and recurring basis. So, whom better to ask about happiness, trust, economics and political stability than a Dane with academic expertise on the subject?

Professor of Economics at Aarhus University Christian Bjørnskov is a leading researcher in the field of social trust. He contributes regularly to the Danish financial paper Børsen. His academic expertise is often added to the satirical blog as well, where he discusses topics such as the not-so-obvious connections between alcohol consumption and economic prosperity. This serious-comedic duality seems to be a common theme for Bjørnskov. From early explorations into the ingredients of happiness, he has now shifted to answering why military dictatorships that switch to democracies almost always choose presidential over parliamentary forms of government.

At ten o’clock in the morning on a typically gray day, we met at a coffee shop in the heart of Aarhus, Denmark’s second largest city. Streetcoffee café, large enough for a small family and us, was lit with the copper glow of exposed filament bulbs illuminating the length of a smile. Our padded stools suggested we otherwise gaze out the window toward mists that cleansed the narrow street. Jazz played like a third voice in the background, competing for attention on the voice recorder. The atmosphere, in clichéd description, was hyggelig.

But enough about Denmark’s famed concept of coziness (hyggelig). It was time to delve into its other source of fame—standing atop a list of the most trusting and happiest countries in the world. More importantly, could Denmark teach other nations about national cohesion, stability and internal peace?

Economists are often interested in the connection between prosperity and social trust. Why would you say that trust is so important to a country’s economic success?

Francis Fukuyama’s work [Trust: Social Virtues and Creation of Property]explains that sharing information is really important for innovation [that] comes about easily in high trust cultures but not in low trust cultures. For example, in high trust cultures managers delegate more responsibility, and that makes firms more flexible [which leads to higher productivity].

Does immigration disrupt a country’s levels of social trust?

There’s a lot of talk about how much immigration [a country] can handle. How fast it is? Where do people come from? For example, in Denmark, it’s well known that the immigrants we got in the early 1980’s from Vietnam integrated extremely well. The immigrants we got in the mid to late 1990’s from Bosnia have integrated extremely well.

What about those from Muslim countries?

Well, Bosnia is a Muslim country. And there seems to be no problems with integrating people from Indonesia in the Netherlands. It appears to be a Middle Eastern problem—and not a Muslim problem.

So, problems of integration are mostly associated with immigrant origins in the Middle East, associated with the culture of the region and not the religion?

Yes, we do see non-Middle Eastern Muslim countries where you don’t have any problems, really.

Such as Indonesian immigrants?

Yes. You can also go to the United Kingdom and see how well most Pakistanis integrate. It’s quite successful.

What do you think are the differences between these groups that integrate well and those that do not?

It seems as if some immigrant groups learn the cultural codes quite easily, and some don’t. [In Denmark,] we have this very high level of trust, which means that a lot of things that might be normal behavior in the Middle East are considered dishonest behavior here. And if you come as an immigrant, you have to learn what we perceive as dishonest or just not right. And if you don’t, you’re going to have a hard time integrating into Danish society. The flip side of Danish society is that we punish dishonest behavior quite severely, at a social level.

Do you have critics, and how have you responded?

You let the data speak for you. And if it’s in the data, it’s there, and if it’s not, then you better have a very good explanation for why you’re right. I had a couple politicians criticize me. One guy, who is a Minister in our new government, thought the welfare state had created the trust level.

He is saying the welfare state created trust but you are saying, “No, trust was there before the welfare state.”


How did you counter his argument?

What he refers to are a couple old studies [Bo Rothstein, 1998 & 2009] that use 21 countries. We re-did that with 74 countries and found nothing. We are fairly sure we are right.

In some countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom, trust seems to be going down. But, in Denmark, it is currently going up. Are there things that countries can do to build trust?

Low trust generations [in Denmark and Norway] are dying now, [those] that lived through World War II. The elderly generation in these two Scandinavian countries suffered badly under the occupying German forces. [The scars of that trauma] are disappearing as they die out. Younger generations that have only known a peaceful, trusting country, and nothing else, have brought the statistical average of trust up. But this is country specific. In some countries, we find that the World War II generation is more trusting—[such as in] the United Kingdom and the United States.

Could it be that long-standing peaceful countries have higher trust levels?

The two countries that have fought the most wars are Denmark and Sweden. We were more or less constantly at war until the late 18th century, but if you look at political histories within the countries—and particularly in Norway and Denmark—it’s been ridiculously peaceful. The last time a leading Danish politician was murdered was 1286. It’s not war with your foreign enemies [that matters]; it’s internally, in political stability.

Do you think Denmark has a kind of special quality that it could teach to other countries, in terms of trust?

It’s very difficult to teach. I always think about The New York Times article from 2001 or 2002 where some poor girl had left her pram outside a café [in New York City]. She did exactly what she would do back home in Copenhagen. But she got arrested. It took The New York Times two days to realize that’s what we do in Scandinavia. You leave the pram outside because you don’t want to wake up the kid.

Right. And you don’t automatically assume somebody is going to steal your baby.

Exactly. In a large part of the United States and Canada and the United Kingdom, you could do that without any problems, but people don’t. And I think we can teach people that little bit: There are things that are normal in other parts of the world that you should be able to do [too].

I heard a quote, something to the effect that “social trust in Denmark can only happen if you have the Danes.”

There is something to it. [Trust] is something you grow up with. You copy your parent’s attitude towards foreigner or strangers. That is also why you see those differences within Canada and the United States, where you have large Scandinavian communities you have higher trust levels right now: North Dakota, Washington State.

You had a paper in Kyklos, entitled “Migrants and Life Satisfaction: The Role of the Country of Origin and the Country of Residence,” where you argue that country-of-origin plays a large role in trust among immigrants, as exemplified by Scandinavians in the United States and Canada. You found that people coming from developing countries, for example—they often come with low trust levels to high trust level countries. While their trust may go up, it is not to the same level as the native population. Strangely, this did not apply to immigrants from post-Communist countries! They actually took up the trust level of their newly adopted high-trust country very rapidly. Can you explain that unexpected finding?

We [Niclas Berggren and co-researchers] knew post-Communist countries are different, so we treated them as a different group [in the research methodology]. We expected they would be somewhat similar to other developing countries, and then there was nothing there. That delayed us by about two months because we hadn’t seen that coming. It was so weird.

Do you have an explanation for that now?

I had a student assistant who was Lithuanian, and I simply asked her [about why they picked up trust levels in their newly adopted country as though her previous country had no influence on them at all]. She said, “Of course, none of us want anything to do with our home countries.” People from those countries—they move for good. Communism destroyed so much of the original culture that what’s left might not be representative of anyone in the country.

Is there a paper of yours that has opened new branches of research?

“The Determinants of Social Trust.” That is, by far, my most cited paper. I can see that has been influential. The main finding is that monarchies are more trusting.

Why is that?

It’s a mystery. But we do see a correlation between trust levels in Europe today and trust levels among third generation Americans with grandparents from European countries. The American trust levels are systematically lower if their grandparents left a monarchy [than those that stayed behind under a Monarchy]. It’s probably causal. There must be something that a monarchy does. Our best explanation is that when you have a reasonably functioning monarchy, you have someone who is a political actor who is common to everyone regardless of how they vote, and who they are. We see that in Denmark. The Crown Princess is extremely popular among immigrants in Denmark. But our Crown Princess is Australian. But there is something Royalty does. In Denmark, the Queen delivers a New Year’s address every year. Her dad did this before her. Once in a while she points to things she is not satisfied with. Politicians can do that, and no one cares. When the Queen does it, it’s different. What she does is actually point to little [needed] changes in behavior, [and citizens take her advice].

In your new research, you have found that democratization of autocratic regimes almost always leads to a republic, as opposed to a parliamentary democracy. Can you explain that?

There’s a fun story about that paper. Martin [Rode] and I had worked a lot on this new database, and I taught a political economy course in Heidelberg, and I was showing the class the transition matrix, which type of government [transitions to a different] types of government. Then, a Brazilian girl pointed and said, “Those guys always become that type. Why is that?” And I realized, she was right. And we didn’t know why! We had chats that summer, and she had some ideas. It became a theoretical paper: why dictatorships always become presidential governments. [It started] just because Marina asked. You know those students. She was one of these students that was bound [to go on]. She is now doing a PhD. You get these questions and it forces you to think about these things [that you never thought about] before.

In a paper last month, November 2019, you argued that Catalans had the same trust levels as all Spaniards prior to the recent upsurge in national secessionist sentiments. But when these sentiments rose, so did social trust among Catalans. Would you say that secessionist movements always produce a sudden rise in social trust?

No. By the way, people hate that paper. It was a surprise for us. We [also] saw evidence [that social trust suddenly rises during national secessionist movements] in Estonia. Estonia gained its independence in the early 1990’s, and, after that, trust has increased but only among those that speak Estonian.

But not among the Russian minority?

No. The Russian minority has approximately Russian trust levels and keep having Russian trust levels.

This makes sense to me, that a group that has a nationalist movement would feel a sense of identity and trust with its “in-group.”

We pissed off people. We think of this as re-establishing a national identity. It seems as if in Catalonia it happens among people who speak Catalan at home.

Do you think this applies to Denmark, in the sense that Denmark is squeezed between powerful neighbors, Sweden and Germany, and has always had to promote a sense of identity that is different? In doing so, it has promoted an internal increase in cohesion, which is an increase in social trust?

One thing we would absolutely love to do—if we could get the funds, because its expensive—is a study in the border region [between Denmark and Germany]. I grew up down there [in Haderslev]. There are major minorities on both sides. Something like 30,000 people who speak German at home and feel German. And about 50,000 people who speak Danish at home. We would love to see how much they have retained of the other country’s culture. For example, there are two Danish High Schools in Northern Germany, and they work differently than German High Schools. They teach as if you were in Denmark. And the German High School north of the border teaches in the German way. That has been the case since unification 99 years ago [since the 1920 border-setting referendum].

We have the referendum results at the Parish level. We’re fairly sure that once you get into the 1930’s, the referendum results are reflected in how people vote in the national elections. That is—populist parties in the 1930’s. In parishes where more people voted German, it seems as if more people vote populist in the 1930’s. There are some cultural differences that are retained over time.

And I think you’re right. Years ago, for some weird reason, I ended up at a reception in Brussels at the Prague House and had a chat with a guy who turned out to be the Czech Ambassador for the EU, and his wife was from Norway. He told me they drove from Prague to Bergen [Norway] where she was from. From Prague to the Danish border [he said], everything was one culture. The second they [crossed the border] they were in another culture. His experience was that everything changes right on that border!

So again, as a slight rehash, are strong institutions a major component of building social trust?

I would say it is the other way around. Some places have really good institutions without high trust levels. If good institutions create trust, it should create trust everywhere. If it goes the other way around, part of the effect of social trust on good institutions is through the way people vote. If that’s the case, social trust and good institutions should only be associated with each other in democracies where voting matters. And that’s actually what we find.

That brings us back to one of your critics, no?

It doesn’t mean you can’t have good institutions with lower trust levels. It just means you have to achieve those institutions in a different way.

A benevolent dictatorship?

Well, in France you get a very different type of democratic development there. Look, I’m not sure it’s exactly true, but if you look at major corruption scandals in Canada, where do they originate?


Yes. In the low-trust part of Canada.

As a Canadian, he had hit my heart. We shared a cathartic laugh together, finishing the interview on that note. Just as he was about to exit, I shouted out, “Do you want me to send a draft review copy of this interview?”

“No, that’s okay. I trust you.”.

Mark Hecht is a Canadian-British writer and academic. As a geography instructor, he received an award for Excellence in Teaching from Mount Royal University. He now writes for various publications.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.