Though previous research has already found a link between trust and participation in environmental efforts, a new study is one of the first to examine the cultural factors also at work.
Using data from the "2010 General Social Survey," Baylor University researchers analyzed responses from 650 participants, including 238 Southerners. (Sixteen states, plus Washington, D.C., were considered "the South," as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau.)
The results: Southerners tended to be less trusting than residents of other U.S. regions, but trust isn't the only variable that plays a role in whether they recycle, buy green products and conserve water.
Published in The Sociological Quarterly, the study found that only 24.9% of Southerners responded that "most people can be trusted" when asked, "Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted, or that you can't be too careful in dealing with people?" Among non-Southerners, 38.7% trusted others.
According to the press release announcing the study results, the skew may have evolved from the fact that Southerners are more likely to have small, tight-knit social groups, which promotes trust among the group members but distrust toward those outside of it. Non-Southerners, on the other hand, tend to be more individualistic, with a large number of "weak and transient friendships," which promotes more trust of those considered outsiders.
One of the study's findings put a new perspective on previous research regarding trust's role in environmental efforts: Southerners' participation in such efforts doesn't depend on trust as much as non-Southerners' participation does.
"A lot of researchers have reported trust as kind of a cure-all for protecting the environment through cooperation. Southerners are just as willing, but less trusting," said lead author Kyle Irwin, an assistant professor in Baylor's College of Arts & Sciences.
For Southerners, cooperation is more closely tied to political views and education. Democrats are more likely to make cuts in living standards in order to benefit the environment, and more education was linked to more willingness to pay higher taxes for environmental causes.
States considered "the South" were Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia, in addition to Washington, D.C.