Social Capital, Television, and the “Mean World”: Trust, Optimism, and Civic Participation



Robert Putnam argues that much of the decline in social trust and civic engagement in the United States can be attributed to increased television viewing. People who watch a lot of television are likely to believe that the real world is as “mean” as the “television world,” and hence withdraw their trust from other people and decline to participate in civic affairs. Using data from the GSS and other surveys, I show that it is not television that makes people less trusting, but optimism for the future that makes people more trusting. When measures of optimism were used as determinants of trust in the estimation of a simultaneous equation model, the effects of television vanished. There is no support for the argument that television makes us less trusting because of the content of the shows we watch, or for the argument that television makes us withdraw from civic engagement because of the amount of time consumed by viewing. In addition, no evidence for specific cohort effects was found.