Can terrorists influence our trust in each other?

Benny Geys

Swedes trusted each other more after the terror attack in Stockholm. But the newfound trust did not last long. After two weeks, the level returned to normal, according to a new study.

Trust plays a crucial role in all well-functioning societies. If I can expect that you will behave, I am more prepared to cooperate with you.

Much of our society is based on us having a reasonably high level of trust in each other. Trust is an important factor for economic growth, well-functioning institutions and maintenance of the welfare state.

But how will the trust in society be affected by constant new terrorism incidents?

Does terrorism affect trust?

In recent years, terrorism has become a more commonplace phenomenon. Terror attacks trigger anxiety in people and increase the fear that terrorism may occur again. Fear can make us less trusting of each other and anxiety can make us more guarded when we meet other people.

But we also see that terrorism brings people together to express their grief, compassion and solidarity.

We saw this after the terror attack in New York on 11 September 2001. We also saw it after the attack on Norway on 22 July 2011 and we saw it after the bombing of the airport in Brussels on 22 March 2016.

Such united fronts after terrorism could possibly contribute to reinforcement or confirmation of existing bonds and relationships.

The bomb attack in Stockholm

Professor Benny Geys at BI Norwegian Business School, together with Professor Salmai Qari at the Berlin School of Economics and Law, have conducted a study to see whether the bomb attack in Stockholm in 2010 affected the Swedish people's trust in each other.

Two explosive charges were triggered ten minutes apart in a central downtown area on 11 December 2010 in Stockholm. The attack, which was carried out by a suicide bomber, was investigated as a terrorist attack, one of the first to take place in Scandinavia.

Geys and Qari gained access to data from the Swedish opinion poll "Society, Opinion, Media", which e.g. asks questions about the concern for terrorism and trust level. The researchers compared the degree of trust among Swedes directly before and after the tragic event.

The results are now being presented in a research article in the periodical Public Choice.

Temporary increase in trust

"The study shows that people's trust in each other increased immediately after the attack," says Geys.

The researchers presume that the effect of people coming together to express solidarity and compassion after the terror attack outweighs the increased fear and anxiety that the terrorism creates. At least in the short term.

The increased trust that the Swedes had in each other turned out to be a brief phenomenon. Less than two weeks after the attack, trust returned to the level measured before the terror event.

"The findings are still important when we know how vital trust is in society," says the BI Professor.

He emphasises that we need to know more about how terrorism affects trust in the longer term and about the effect of such events being more frequent.


  • Geys, B., & Qari, S. (2017): Will you still trust me tomorrow? The causal effect of terrorism on social trust. Public Choice forthcoming. (Summary)

Published 14. May 2018

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