Now that the 2014 data for the General Social Survey have been released, we can see if recent social trends are continuing or reversing. I'll be focusing on those that relate to the cocooning-and-crime cycle, which plays out on the local and interpersonal level, where we typically only have impressions rather than hard data.
Here is an earlier post that lays out the dynamics of crime and cocooning behavior. Briefly, when people come out of their shells and let their guard down, it makes them more vulnerable to manipulation or predation by criminals and con artists. An outgoing social mood leads to rising crime rates. As crime rates get higher and higher, people begin to worry more about who they can trust. Rising crime slows down trust.
Ultimately they figure it's not worth the risk to be socially open around strangers and begin to close themselves off. That leaves slim pickings for criminals, so that cocooning causes falling crime rates. With the environment becoming so safe, people reassess how necessary it is to cocoon themselves from seemingly non-existent danger. Ultimately, low crime rates lead people to re-emerge from their cocoons, which begins the cycle all over again.
Violent and property crime rates have been falling since a peak around 1992. They fell dramatically during the '90s, looked like they would bottom out during the 2000s, but have continued a steady descent over the past five or so years.
That should have been enabled by the continuing of the cocooning trend, and indeed the new GSS data show no reversal in any of the key signals of people closing themselves off to others.
The main psychological trait here is trust, and it continues to fall. The GSS asks if other people can generally be trusted, or if you can't be too careful. A high was reached in the late '80s, with around 40-45% of Americans trusting strangers. After a decline, it appeared to hold steady at 32% from 2006 onward. In the 2014 survey, though, it took an extra dip down to only 30%.
This withdrawal of trust cuts across every demographic group, so I'm not controlling for any of them. Race, sex, age, education, class, marital status, region, size of local population, political orientation -- everyone is noticeably less trusting of strangers than they were 25 years ago.
One of the most dramatic drops I noticed was among young people. The only age group that is about as trusting as it used to be is 60-somethings. Every other group shows the decline, but the drop is steeper the younger the group. Among people aged 18-24, trusting others dropped from 35% to 14% from the early '90s to 2014. But even among 40-somethings, trust levels fell from 48% to 28% during the same period (that's the same size of a decline, but relatively smaller compared to how high it began).
I interpret that as younger people being more susceptible to cocooning because not trusting strangers and wanting to just play by yourself is a natural part of immaturity. Young people being as socially open as they were back in the '80s was more of a radical departure from what you'd expect based on their age, so it snapped back harder once cocooning set in (regression toward the mean).
You may be thinking, "Well, there's still at least 30% of Americans who trust others -- they're a minority, but it isn't like they're non-existent. And the maximum was only 40-45% before. How big of a change can that be?"
The difference is that trust is not part of isolated, individual behavior -- it relates to interactions among pairs of individuals, or larger groups still. Pick two people at random, throw them together, and see if both of them are trusting. If so, they can sustain a getting-to-know-you interaction. If only one is trusting, the interaction will sputter out. If neither one is trusting, it won't even be initiated.
The chance that two randomly chosen people are both trusting is proportional to the square of their fraction in the population. (Pick one, pick another, multiply the probabilities.) Squaring a fraction makes it much smaller, so looking at just the trust level among individuals is underestimating how fragmented society has become.
In a world where 45% are trusting, the chance that any two strangers who run into each other will both be trusting is 20%. In a world where only 30% are trusting, those two strangers have only a 9% chance of both being trusting.
Thus, even though a trusting disposition has "only" fallen by one-third, from 45% to 30%, trust-based interactions between a pair of strangers have fallen by half, from 20% to 9%.
It's even worse for those youngsters. When their trust levels fall from 35% to 14%, successful interactions between a pair of strangers who run into each other fall from 12% to just 2%. Of course, folks can make small talk without having to trust each other, but I'm talking about the ability of people who haven't met before to open up and connect with each other right off the bat. It may have been difficult before, but it's nearly impossible now. They might as well be toddlers who think everyone other than mommy and daddy are dangerous, or who are at least not worth trusting to share their toys with.
If you've wondered why you never see young people letting it all hang out and feeding off each other's energy, that's why. They simply don't trust anyone.
Going out to a bar on a somewhat frequent basis is also less common than it was back in the '80s. It's most pronounced among younger age groups, and only those who are 55 and older are more likely to go out to a bar or nightclub than their counterparts used to be. That's the Boomers refusing to age gracefully, and not really a sign of an outgoing disposition. They're there to engage in a contest of "who's still got it?" rather than to open up and have fun.
Spending an evening with a neighbor is still declining since a peak in the late '80s.
Both men and women continue to have less frequent sex. Doing it only once a month, or less frequently, afflicted nearly 40% of women in the early '90s, but nearly 50% in 2014. For men, infrequent sex rose from around 30% to around 40%.
Those questions establish that people are still cocooning. What about gradually realizing that the world isn't so dangerous anymore? Fear of walking around your neighborhood at night tracks the crime rate, lagging behind it by a few years (just to be safe). In 1994, 45% of Americans were afraid, and in 2014 it continued to drop, down to 31%.
Predicting how long this period of cocooning and falling crime will last is not an exact science. The last time, it was about 25 years, from a peak of crime in 1933 to a bottom in 1958. Keeping tabs on the social mood is more important: once we see a steady rise in trust and open behavior, we can expect crime rates to start rising shortly after. So far, though, that doesn't appear to be around the corner.
GSS variables: year, trust, socbar, socommun, sexfreq, fear