The backbone of a happy, healthy society is rooted in how much citizens trust each another.

If one place in the world could teach a few things about happiness and trust to the rest, it would be Denmark. It consistently ranks as one of the happiest and most trusting nations. Yet, in a current global landscape that has seen the largest movement of migrants ever, mostly to western countries, to Denmark, to Italy, to America, and beyond, there are now significant questions about the impact that migrants have on a country’s sense of identity, security, happiness and trust. Who better to ask about these concerns than a Dane with some academic expertise?

So I flew to Denmark and sat down for a coffee and conversation with a leading researcher in this field—Christian Bjørnskov, Professor of Economics at Aarhus University. It was a couple days before Christmas, 2019.

Admittedly it’s cliché now to start an article about Denmark with hyggelig, yet it’s almost impossible to avoid. Bjørnskov and I met at a coffee shop in the heart of Aarhus, Denmark’s second largest city. It was still rather dark outside at ten o’clock in the morning. The place was just large enough for a small family, and us. Lit with a copper glow from exposed filament bulbs illuminating the length of a smile, our padded stools suggested we otherwise gaze out the window instead. Side-by-side we looked toward the mists washing through the narrow street. On a padded bench seat behind, with knees touching, the voices of two women rumbled behind us. Jazz played like a third voice in the background, competing for attention on my voice recorder. I hate to say it, but the atmosphere was indeed hyggelig.

But enough about Denmark’s fame to the concept of coziness (hyggelig). It was time to delve into its other fame—the part about it being one of the most trusting and happiest countries in the world.

Christian Bjørnskov is a regular contributor to Denmark’s rather serious financial paper Børsen. He also contributes his academic expertise to the more satirically witty blog where he discusses topics such as the connection between alcohol consumption and economic prosperity. The contradictory serious-comedic dynamic of his personality shines through in every part of his research career as well. He’s gone from early academic explorations into the ingredients of happiness, to a more recent focus on why military dictatorships that shift to democracies, almost always become presidential forms, and not parliamentary, or even monarchies.

The interview was to become an exploration of social trust, integration of immigrants, and why secessionist movements and Monarchies are good for people, with some advice for my own country, Canada.

We turn toward each other.

Q. Why is trust so important to a country’s economic success?

Bjørnskov speaks immediately with the confidence of a man that knows what he is talking about. He’s referencing academic papers, their methodologies, and has an expectation that I’d better keep up. He cites American political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s work, the author of Trust: Social Virtues and Creation of Property to explain that “sharing information is really important for innovation” and that it comes about easily in high trust cultures but not in low trust cultures. For example, “in high trust cultures managers delegate more responsibility and that makes…firms more flexible,” which leads to higher productivity.

Social trust is good for the economy. But could it be possible that social trust is disrupted when immigrants arrive from places with lower trust levels, or vastly different cultures? I ask.

Q. Does immigration disrupt a country’s existing social trust?

“There’s a lot of talk about how much immigration (a country) can handle. How fast it is? Where do people come from? So for example in Denmark, it’s well known that the immigrants we got in the early 1980s from Vietnam integrated extremely well. The immigrants we got in the mid to late ‘90s from Bosnia have integrated extremely well.”

Q. What about those from Muslim countries?

“Well, Bosnia is a Muslim country. And there seems to be no problems with integrating people from Indonesia, in the Netherlands. It appears to be a Middle Eastern problem, and not a Muslim problem.”

Q. So problems of integration are mostly associated with immigrant origins in the Middle East; associated with the culture of the region and not the religion?

“Yes, we do see non-Middle Eastern Muslim countries where you don’t have any problems, really.”

Q. Such as Indonesian immigrants?

“Yes. You can also go to the UK and see how well most Pakistanis integrate. It’s quite successful.”

Q. What do you think are the differences between these groups that integrate well and those that don’t?

“It seems as if some immigrant groups learn the cultural codes quite easily, and some don’t. (In Denmark) we have this very high level of trust, which means that a lot of things that might be normal behavior in the Middle East is considered dishonest behavior here. And if you come as an immigrant you have to learn what we perceive as dishonest or just not right. And if you don’t you’re going to have a hard time integrating into Danish society. The flip side of Danish society is that we punish dishonest behavior quite severely, at a social level. I guess it’s the same in Canada. You are tolerant to all sorts of lifestyles and so on but not tolerant to dishonest behavior.”

Q. Do you have critics? And how do you respond?

“You let the data speak for you. And if it’s in the data, it’s there, and if it’s not then you better have a very good explanation for why you’re right. I had a couple politicians criticize me. One guy who is a Minister in our new government thought the welfare state had created the trust level.”

Q. He is saying the welfare state created trust but you are saying, no, trust was there before the welfare state.


Q. So what did you say to this politician?

“What he refers to are a couple old studies (Bo Rothstein, 1998 & 2009) that use twenty-one countries. We re-did that with seventy-four countries and found nothing. We are fairly sure we are right.”

Q. Are there things though, that countries can do to build trust?

This topic has been vastly covered in the research. In some countries such as America, Canada and the UK, trust seems to be going down. But in Denmark it is currently going up. Bjørnskov narrows down to an explanation not often discussed but relevant to the statistics.

“Low trust generations (in Denmark and Norway) are dying now…that lived through WWII.”

The elderly generation in these two Scandinavian countries suffered badly under the occupying German forces. The scars of that trauma are disappearing as they die out. Younger generations that have only known a peaceful, trusting country, and nothing else, have brought the statistical average of trust up. But then Bjørnskov notes this to be a country specific phenomenon.

“In some countries that WWII generation is more trusting—UK and USA.”

Q. Could it be that long-standing peaceful countries have higher trust levels?

“The two countries that have fought most wars are Denmark and Sweden…We were more or less constantly at war until the late 18th century, but if you look at political histories within the countries, and particularly in Norway and Denmark, it’s been ridiculously peaceful. The last time a leading Danish politician was murdered was 1286. It’s not war with your foreign enemies (that matters) but it’s internally…in the political stability.”   

Q. Do you think Denmark has a kind of specialness that it could teach to other countries, in terms of trust?

“It’s very difficult to teach. I always think about the New York Times article from 2001 or 2002 where some poor girl had left her pram outside a café (in New York City). She did exactly what she would do back home in Copenhagen. But she got arrested. It took the New York Times two days to realize that’s what we do in Scandinavia. You leave the pram outside because you don’t want to wake up the kid.”

Q. Right. And you don’t automatically assume somebody is going to steal your baby.

“Exactly. In a large part of the US and Canada and the UK you could do that without any problems, but people don’t. And I think we can teach people that little bit—there are things that are normal in other parts of the world that you should be able to do (too).”

Q. I heard a quote, something to the effect that ‘social trust in Denmark can only happen if you have the Danes.’

“There is something to it. (Trust) is something you grow up with. You copy your parent’s attitude towards foreigner or strangers. That is also why you see those differences within Canada and the US, where you have large Scandinavian communities you have higher trust levels right now; North Dakota, Washington State.”

Q. You have a paper coming out in Kyklos, titled “Migrants and Life Satisfaction: The Role of the Country of Origin and the Country of Residence”(2020) where you argue that country of origin plays a large role in trust among immigrants as exampled by Scandinavians in the United States. You found that people coming from developing countries for example, often come with low trust levels to high trust level countries, but while their trust may go up, it is not to the same level as the native population. Strangely, this did not apply to immigrants from post-Communist countries! They actually took up the trust level of their newly adopted high-trust country very rapidly. Can you explain that oddball finding?

“We (Niclas Berggren and co-researchers) knew post-Communist countries are different so we treated them as a different group (in the research. We expected they would be somewhat similar to other developing countries) and then, there was nothing there. That delayed us by about two months because we hadn’t seen that coming. It was so weird.”

Q. Do you have an explanation for that now?

“I had a student assistant who was Lithuanian and I simply asked her (about why they picked up trust levels in their newly adopted country as though her previous country had no influence on them at all). She said, ‘of course, none of us want anything to do with our home countries.’ People from those countries, they move for good. Communism destroyed so much of the original culture that what’s left might not be representative of anyone in the country.”

Q. Is there a paper of yours that has opened any new branches of research?

“I guess the paper I did on The Determinants of Social Trust. That is by far my most cited paper. I can see that has been influential. The main finding is that monarchies are more trusting!”

Q. Why is that?

“It’s a mystery. But we do see a correlation between trust levels in Europe today and trust levels among third generation Americans with grandparents from European countries. The American trust levels are systematically lower if their grandparents left a monarchy (than those that stayed behind under a Monarchy). It’s probably causal. There must be something that a monarchy does. Our best explanation is that when you have a reasonably functioning monarchy you have someone who is a political actor who is common to everyone regardless of how they vote, and who they are. We see that in Denmark. The Crown Princess is extremely popular among immigrants in Denmark. But our Crown Princess is Australian. But there is something they (Royalty) do. In Denmark, the Queen delivers a New Years address every year. Her dad did this before her. Once in a while she points to things she is not satisfied with. Politicians can do that and no one cares. When the Queen does it, it’s different. What she does is actually point to little (needed) changes in behaviour (and citizens take her advice).”

Bjørnskov changes tack and starts talking about the new work on coups, admitting there is simply not enough data right now. So his latest and perhaps most significant project is to build a massive new database that comes from the question: ‘If you get massive political changes through coups, do you get crisis in the economy afterwards?’ It seems you would, but maybe not.

Q. Democratization of autocratic regimes almost always leads to a republic, as opposed to a parliamentary democracy. Can you explain that?

“There’s a fun story about that paper. Martin (Rode) and I had worked a lot on this new database and I taught a political economy course in Heidelberg, and I was showing the class the transition matrix, which type of government (transitions to a different) type of government. Then a Brazilian girl pointed and said, ‘those guys always become that type. Why is that?’ And I realized, she was right. And we didn’t know why! We had chats that summer and she had some ideas. It became a theoretical paper; why dictatorships always become presidential governments. (It started) just because Marina asked. You know those students. She was one of these students that was bound (to go on). She is now doing a PhD. You get these questions and it forces you to think about these things (that you never thought about) before.”

Q. In a paper last month, November 2019, you argued that Catalans had the same trust levels as all Spaniards prior to the recent upsurge in national secessionist sentiments. But when these sentiments rose, so did social trust among Catalans. So would you say that secessionist movements always produce a sudden rise in social trust?

“No. By the way, people hate that paper. It was a surprise for us. We (also) saw evidence (that social trust suddenly rises during national secessionist movements) in Estonia. Estonia gained its independence in the early 1990s, and after that trust has increased but only among those that speak Estonian.”

Q. But not among the Russian minority?

“No. The Russian minority has approximately Russian trust levels and keep having Russian trust levels.”

Q. This makes sense to me, that a group that has a nationalist movement would feel a sense of identity and trust with its ‘in-group’.

“We pissed off people. We think of this as re-establishing a national identity. It seems as if in Catalonia it happens among people who speak Catalan at home.”

Q. Do you think this applies to Denmark, in the sense that Denmark is squeezed between powerful neighbours, Sweden and Germany, and has always had to promote a sense of identity that is different? In doing so, it has promoted an internal increase in cohesion; which is an increase in social trust.

“One thing we would absolutely love to do, if we could get the funds, because its expensive, is a study in the border region (between Denmark and Germany). There are major minorities on both sides. Something like 30,000 people who speak German at home and feel German. And about 50,000 people who speak Danish at home. We would love to see how much they have retained of the other country’s culture. For example, there are two Danish High Schools in Northern Germany and they work differently than German High Schools. They teach as if you were in Denmark. And the German High School north of the border teaches in the German way. That has been the case since unification ninety-nine years ago” (since the 1920 border-setting referendum).

“We have the referendum results at the Parish level. We’re fairly sure that once you get into the 1930s, the referendum results are reflected in how people vote in the national elections. That is, populist parties in the ‘30s. In parishes where more people voted German, it seems as if more people vote populist in the ‘30s. There are some cultural differences that are retained over time.”  

“And I think you’re right. Years ago, for some weird reason, I ended up at a reception in Brussels at the Prague House and had a chat with a guy who turned out to be the Czech Ambassador for the EU and his wife was from Norway. He told me they drove from Prague to Bergen (Norway) where she was from. From Prague to the Danish border (he said) everything was one culture. The second they (crossed the border) they were in another culture … His experience was that everything changes right on that border!”

We had already gone over the point that strong institutions are not, according to Bjørnskov, a factor in generating social trust, nor bringing immigrant trust levels to the same as the native population. It seems an important point. It is particularly poignant since the conversation in my own country, Canada, seems stuck on it. Robert Falconer, a Research Associate in Public Policy at the University of Calgary for example, stated in an opinion editorial in the Vancouver Sun newspaper, Sept. 7, 2019, that “integrating newcomers within the fabric of Canada is…about…safeguarding Canadian institutions.” He is not alone in his thinking. Mainstream media often repeats this message in Canada and among the liberal left in the United States. Yet the integrity of the argument seems circumspect. I bring the conversation with Bjørnskov back around again to hash out this point.

Q. Are strong institutions a major component of building social trust?

“I would say it is the other way around. Some places have really good institutions without high trust levels. If good institutions create trust, it should create trust everywhere. If it goes the other way around, part of the effect of social trust on good institutions is through the way people vote. If that’s the case, social trust and good institutions should only be associated with each other in democracies where voting matters. And that’s actually what we find.”

Q. That brings us back to one of your critics, no?

“It doesn’t mean you can’t have good institutions with lower trust levels. It just means you have to achieve those institutions in a different way.”

Q. A benevolent dictatorship?

“Well, in France you get a very different type of democratic development there….”

A smile suddenly overcomes him as something piercing steers his line of thought in a new direction. We had established that good institutions can exist but citizens are not necessarily influenced by them nor is social trust generated by them.

Bjørnskov looks directly at me, and says, “I’m not sure it’s exactly true but…” He pauses for a brief second and then pointedly says, “if you look at major corruption scandals in Canada, where do they originate?”

Q. Ah…Quebec!

“Yes, in the low-trust part of Canada!”

As two people from high trust countries, we share a kind of cathartic laugh and finish the interview on that note.

Bjørnskov needs to finish the last of his Christmas shopping, and not too soon. The stores are about to close on the cusp of Christmas Eve. Just as he is about to exit, I shout out, “Do you want me to send a draft copy of this interview?”

“No, that’s okay. I trust you.”

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