WASHINGTON — You can take our word for it. Americans don’t trust each other anymore.
We’re not talking about the loss of faith in big institutions such as the government, the church, or Wall Street, which fluctuates with events. For four decades, a gut-level ingredient of democracy — trust in the other fellow — has been quietly draining away.
These days, only one-third of Americans say most people can be trusted. Half felt that way in 1972, when the General Social Survey first asked the question.
Forty years later, a record high of nearly two-thirds say ‘‘you can’t be too careful’’ in dealing with people.
An AP-GfK poll conducted last month found that Americans are suspicious of each other in everyday encounters. Less than one-third expressed a lot of trust in clerks who swipe their credit cards, drivers on the road, or people they meet when traveling.
What is known as ‘‘social trust’’ brings good things: a society in which it is easier to compromise or make a deal, and in which people are willing to work with those who are different from them for the common good.
Distrust, on the other hand, seems to encourage corruption. At the least, it diverts energy to counting change, drawing up 100-page legal contracts, and building gated communities.
There’s no easy fix. Some studies have found that the basis for a person’s lifetime trust levels is set by his or her mid-20s and unlikely to change, other than in some unifying crucible such as a world war.
The best hope for creating a more trusting nation may be figuring out how to inspire today’s youth, perhaps united by their high-tech gadgets, to trust the way previous generations did in simpler times.
There is no single explanation for the loss of trust.
The best-known analysis comes from ‘‘Bowling Alone,’’ author Robert Putnam’s nearly two decades of studying the United States’ declining ‘‘social capital,’’ including trust.
Putnam says Americans have abandoned their bowling leagues and Elks lodges to stay home and watch TV. Less socializing and fewer community meetings make people less trustful than the generation that came of age during the Depression and World War II.
University of Maryland professor Eric Uslaner puts the blame elsewhere: economic inequality. The growing gap between the rich and the poor reduces the sense of a shared fate, Uslaner says.