Norway’s Greatest Vulnerability Is Also Its Greatest Strength

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Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images

Relatives gather to observe a minutes silence opposite Utoya Island, following Friday's attacks on July 25, 2011.

The unspeakable horror of this weekend’s massacre in Norway is exaggerated exponentially by terrorist Anders Breivik’s abuse of one of civil society’s most distinctive features: the trust that the public places in law enforcement. And Norway may be particularly vulnerable to such a breach, as a country with a particularly deep faith in its the integrity of its institutions.  Norway’s best civil qualities, in this case, also made it most vulnerable to the worst impulses of this killer.

Like its fellow Scandinavian countries, Norway is near the top of the world’s charts in many enviable ways: high standard of living and productivity, high levels of happiness, impressive longevity, low levels of economic inequality and corruption and in general, extremely low levels of violent and other crimes.

Countries with this profile tend to have the highest levels of trust in their fellow citizens and institutions. The more fair and equitable people believe their country to be, the more trusting they are of each other and of their government. This tends to bolster both the emotional strength of public society and the financial economy.

When people feel more kindly towards each other there’s less friction, violence and crime and more willingness to spend money on things like social services, which are seen as benefiting everyone. When people are more trusting, they can also make business deals with little red tape, security spending or litigation, which speeds productivity.

PHOTOS: Anders Behring Breivik, the Extremist Behind Norway’s Tragedy

In contrast, studies show that countries with low trust tend to have higher levels of corruption, crime and economic inequality. Because these traits feed on each other either in negative or positive cycles, it’s hard to know which comes first: does trust produce a desire to reduce inequality or does lower inequality make people feel more generous? You can imagine it either in vicious or virtuous cycles: trust increasing productivity and growth, making everyone more inclined to share—or alternatively, corruption producing mistrust and creating the need for more security measures, pushing people to hoard whatever they can to be sure they “get theirs.”

Interestingly, these traits can even be seen in people’s physiology: higher inequality is linked to lower health and this is believed to be caused by the effects of hierarchy on stress hormones. You may recall the baboon research I covered here last week. Basically, the higher you go up the chain of social status, the lower levels of dangerous stress hormones you have circulating in your blood, with the exception (at least in baboons) of alpha males who seem to be stressed by trying to keep their place at the pinnacle. High levels of these hormones are linked with greater risk for heart disease, stroke, diabetes and in humans, all sorts of addictions and mental health problems as well.

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In human data, researchers find that stress hormone levels also tend to follow hierarchy—and it seems that the less difference there is between top and bottom, the less stressful it is to be in a society over all, but particularly at the bottom where the hormone levels are highest and pose the greatest health risks.

Norway is obviously undergoing severe stress right now, with many survivors, first responders, friends and family at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder. But the good news is that their high trust country is the best possible setting for coping with PTSD: social support is the best way to prevent the disorder from developing and the best predictor of recovery in those who do become ill.

While Breivik may have been able to harm greater numbers of people because Norway is such an open and trusting society, that same quality will also make it easier for the Norweigians to recover. Resilience is another benefit of trust, and thankfully, it’s not as open to exploitation.