03/18/2014 04:01 pm ET | Updated May 18, 2014

The Catch-22 Underlying Millennials' Lack of Trust

If the Millennials were in search of a slogan, a recent report by the Pew Research Center suggests the most appropriate one might just be "Trust No One." Pew's findings show that fewer than twenty percent of Millennials -- those ranging from 18-33 -- believe that most people can generally be trusted. If one compares that to the other groups comprising the nation's adult populace, the Millennials stand as a clear outlier. Generation X (people ages 34-49), Baby Boomers (ages 50-68), and the Silent Generation (ages 69-86) all put greater faith in their fellow citizens, believing respectively that 31 percent, 40 percent, and 37 percent of people are trustworthy.

It attempting to understand why Millennials are so pessimistic, one might be tempted to ask: What's wrong with them? Has the tendency to use the Internet and social media that so dominates this group stunted their moral and social development? Has the fact that Millennials are twice as likely as any other generation to have taken and shared "selfies" unmasked them as the most self-interested and thereby most disdainful of others among us? To my mind, these questions, though potentially interesting in their own right, miss the mark when it comes to understanding where their aversion to trust comes from, as they suggest that there's something innate to the minds of Millennials themselves -- a birthright of dubiousness if you will -- that gives rise to their cautious motives and beliefs. Although appealing for its simplicity, such a view belies the fact that trustworthiness, and therefore the propensity to trust, just doesn't work that way.

The past decade of research has shown that trustworthiness -- like much of moral behavior -- doesn't stem from stable traits but rather from the specifics of given situations. For example, my work with Claremont McKenna psychologist Piercarlo Valdesolo has repeatedly shown that about 90 percent of people, the majority of whom are normally viewed as upstanding and honest, will break an agreement to benefit themselves over another if they feel they can do so anonymously. Similar work from my team has also shown that individuals' willingness to trust others follows the vicissitudes of their emotional states. The search for factors underlying a group's propensity to distrust, then, shouldn't begin by asking what's wrong with them, but rather by asking what's happening to them?

When the question is put this way, one primary reason for the Millennials' wariness becomes apparent. Their pessimism doesn't stem from aberrant or anti-social minds, but rather from ones well-calibrated to the truth of trust's operation. At base, trusting others always comes down to a bet -- a guess of where another's priorities will fall along the continuum of selfish- to selflessness at any given moment. And like any bet, the odds of arriving at correct answers will change as a function of one's ability to gauge the situation.

When it comes to the Millennials, one thing is certain. They stand much lower on the socio-economic ladder relative to other groups. One might even say historically lower, as their smaller incomes and savings don't only reflect the usual generational disparities associated with youth, but are compounded by the lower wages and higher unemployment reverberating from the economic crisis and resulting recession that accompanied their initial ventures into the working world. But what do SES disparities have to do with trusting? Quite a lot, according to the work of Berkeley psychologists Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner. The team's repeated studies have shown that as power and prestige increase, trustworthiness declines. Those higher in SES are not only more self-interested on average, they're also more willing to lie and cheat those of lower status. The logic is straightforward. When you hold all the cards, there's less of a reason to be trustworthy to those who don't. They need you more than you need them.

When one combines this fact with the historical levels of income inequality that disproportionately impact them, Millennials' distrust of others might not be so surprising. It's not only the economic odds that are stacked against them; it's the interpersonal ones, too. They possess the unfortunate distinction of making any and every other group feel economically superior to them, and when it comes to trust, there is little that is more dangerous. As Piff and colleagues have shown, unethical behavior can be temporarily increased simply by making people feel a relative sense of power or superiority over others through role-playing for only a few minutes. But in the real world, no role-playing is needed for Millennials to take on the lower-status role in any interaction. They serve, by definition of their economic position, as real-time prestige inductions for the majority of others around them. And that, perhaps, is the most pernicious part of all, as it means, regrettably, that they're also unsuspecting and blameless contributors to their own plight. Their lower status automatically nudges the minds of others -- without the awareness of either party -- toward untrustworthy acts, thereby perpetuating the Millennials' belief that trustworthiness is in short supply.