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The University of Southampton

The Ecological Context of Trust: Nature, Self-Protection, and Trust in Strangers

Stefan Thau
London Business School, UK

Social commentators frequently observe the "loss of community" (i.e., distrust and lack of cooperation) in urban environments. Various sociological explanations (e.g., crime, different norms, social inequality) have been proposed to explain the effect of urban environments on community loss. These explanations fail to consider that increasing levels of urbanization also change the natural environment in which people adapted to trust/cooperation problems. Lack of nature (e.g., water, green spaces, woodlands) may explain the reluctance of people to trust strangers in urban environments. We find that residents of American cities trust strangers more when their city has relatively more green spaces, controlling for a number of potential confounds. Participants exposed to nature cues trust a stranger more compared to abstract green shape and compared to city cue exposure. This effect was due to self-protection. We consider implications for an ecological model of self-regulation and social interaction.

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