Whom shall I trust? Trust involves a truster who takes risk of getting hurt and a trusted, who has the possibility and incentive to exploit the truster. Economic interactions between individuals are governed not only by contractual relationships but also by trust between individuals, which plays a crucial role in facilitating efficient activities. At the social level, trust between people fosters cooperation and economic activities and, hence, is important for growth and development.
How does a person's religious identity affect his/her trust? Which identity drives trust behaviour when one assumes multiple identities based on religion? Economic experiment is a powerful methodology to understand human behaviour in controlled environment. We ran trust experiments in Bangladesh and West Bengal, India, to add to our understanding of the role of multiple religious identities on individuals' trust behaviour in segmented societies. The question of how individuals interact with people from their own religion and other religions is of immense importance in the context of segmented societies having history of religious conflicts in South Asian region. Interestingly, we observed that it is status based on religion rather than religion per se that matters most in trust behaviour among Hindus and Muslims -- both in Bangladesh and in West Bengal.
We ran trust experiments among a random sample of about 620 Hindu and Muslim households in 32 selected villages(16 each) in Bangladesh and West Bengal, based on the percentage of Hindus and Muslims (defining minority and majority) in the village context. In the experiments we observed their behaviour reflecting trust in anonymous others. In particular, we ran trust experiments among three sub-samples of participants (same religion group, different religion group and no information group), who were required to be engaged in real economic exchange in pairs, which resembled a social dilemma situation and whereby using trust they could achieve an outcome beneficial for themselves.
What we observed in both countries is that general trust level is same, but low compared to other countries. By comparing behaviour between each sub-sample, we found that both in Bangladesh and in West Bengal individuals from minority religion (Hindus in Bangladesh and Muslims in West Bengal) trust their own religion group more than they trust the other religion group. Also, Hindus in Bangladesh and Muslims in West Bengal trust their own religion group more than they trust others (not knowing religion).
If we want to attribute this behaviour to their religion, then we need to conclude that Hindus or Muslims behave the same way in both locations. Contrary to this, we observed that people from minority religion in each place behave the same way; that is they trust other minorities more compared to majorities. Moreover, they trust minorities more compared to others in general. They do not show such behaviour when they constitute majority.
These suggest that both Hindus and Muslims as minority behave differently in term of trust behaviour. In other words, in both Bangladesh and India, Hindus and Muslims as minority favour other co-religion people more than their opposite-religion. Interestingly, this bias is more pronounced among individuals who are rather religious (adhere more to religion). But Muslims and Hindus, as majority in these two countries, do not show such discriminatory attitude. Also, in both countries we found that conditional on the trust placed by minority on majority, the latter show more trustworthy behaviour towards the former. Our results also suggest that religious minorities' trust bias (towards other minorities) goes down when they constitute majority in the village context in both countries.
What to say about such results? Trust based on status is a crucial finding, which suggests that rather than viewing segmented societies through the prism of religion, it would be more worthwhile to view interaction between groups in such societies through the lens of status within the society. The results that trust level is generally low in these locations and that minorities favour their co-religion people more, showing discrimination to others, are also not very surprising altogether. Arguably, weak legal enforcement, rule of law, rampant corruption, community characteristics force citizens to depend on informal and local rules of limited trust (within family and or groups) not conducive to cooperation and economic outcome.
However, individual distrust is not something that is set forever. Given that the economic ramification of the general level of trust in a society is substantial, it becomes urgent to identify institutions and public policies for trust to develop. Can trust be changed? How? Research on policy linkage is still at a very early stage but some conclusions can be made drawing from existing cross-country and regional analyses cited elsewhere. Improving quality of institutions (tackling corruption, ensuring justice and functioning of legal system and strong legal enforcement, political participation and, above all, democratic norms and practices) and education can have substantial impact, in the long run, on an individual's trust attitudes. For example, as shown in other studies, two additional years of schooling can increase trust level by more than 11%. More participatory and democratic institutions can produce more trusting and civic minded citizens. However, a sense of interpersonal trust is also necessary for functioning of our democratic system. So, only right kind of policies and institutions can ensure that overall level of trust in our societies converges gradually to the average level of trust in high trusting developed societies, which is essential for achieving and sustaining economic progress.
Looking at minority trust; while trust cannot be built immediately, policies that promote trust and reduce fractionalisation within the society should be given due importance for sustaining social cohesion as well as economic progress. For example, government policies towards development of the minority, including socioeconomic and infrastructural improvements in minority concentrated areas, may be taken. More importantly, there is need for research on public policies through the lens of disadvantaged minorities to identify gaps and inequalities in access to recourses and service provision is very important. This said, development policies need to assure different group identities to come together to get maximum benefit of diversity.
The writer is an economist and Head of Research, Institute of Governance Studies and Brac Development Studies (IGS-BDI), Brac University Dhaka and a former faculty of Queen's University Belfast, UK. This column is based in on a paper jointly written with Gautam Gupta, Pushkar Maitra, Santanu Mitra and Ananta Neelim, which is circulated as Religion, Minority Status and Trust: Evidence from a field Experiment.