Dimensions of eWOM Trust

As discussed earlier, researchers have regularly conceptualized trust as a complex, multidimensional construct. This can be attributed principally to an inclusion of trusters’ various critical beliefs about specific characteristics of the trusted party in the researchers’ trust definitions. For instance, McKnight et al. (1998) defined trust in terms of beliefs a person holds about the trustee’s benevolence, competence, honesty, and predictability in a given situation. Fundamentally, their definition of trust is similar to that of trustworthiness by Mayer et al. (1995), who defined trustworthiness as attributes or characteristics of the trustee. According to them, trustworthiness is primarily established by distinct beliefs about the ability, integrity, and benevolence of the interaction partner. Since then, numerous authors have agreed with the three-dimensional conceptualization of trust (Blau, 1964; Butler, 1991; Chen & Dhillon, 2003); also in the context of eWOM trust (Yu & Tang, 2010). However, there is evidence that these dimensions are often intertwined (Crosby et al., 1990; Ganesan, 1994; Gefen, 1997). Empirical identification therefore can be threatened. An extensive review of trust literature had identified that even though the terms of the dimensions vary between authors and some dimensions can be specified in more detail, their definitions and operationalizations suggest that this fundamental set of trustworthiness beliefs represent key dimensions of trust. However, due to the dominant cognitive-based approach towards trust, a number of trust researchers have neglected additional important aspects of trust, such as the role of trusting attitudes and intentions. For instance, the ad-hoc eWOM trust measure of Casalo et al. (2011) understands the construct as being multi-dimensional; however, this conceptualization is only limited to the cognitive beliefs of (i) honesty; (ii) benevolence; and (iii) competence. On the other hand, Ridings et al. (2002) conclude that ability, on the one hand, and a combined benevolence and integrity dimension, on the other, seem to represent best the concept of trust.

In accordance with the literature’s predominant multi-dimensional idea of trust and the aim to include a preferably broad basis of potentially relevant trust concepts, this study has identified five dimensions of trust that have most frequently appeared in related trust research: (1) ability (usefulness); (2) integrity/honesty; (3) benevolence; (4) likeability; and (5) willingness to rely on. These key concepts have been applied in the identification stage of the research at hand in order to extract an initial pool of items based on current academic knowledge and their definitions helped to gain additional insights in expert and consumer interviews. MacKenzie, Podsakoff and Podsakoff (MacKenzie, Podsakoff & Podsakoff, 2011, p. 300) note, “if a construct is multi-dimensional then it is important to define each of the sub-dimensions with the same care that was used in the case of the focal construct itself’. Hence, in the remainder of this section, the diverse dimensions are discussed in reference to the study’s conceptualization of eWOM trust and formal definitions of each sub-dimension are provided.

Including the concept of ability in trust definitions is not new, as it represents a critical component in a great number of trust conceptualizations (Bhattacherjee, 2002; Chen & Dhillon, 2003; Hovland et al., 1953; Lee & Turban, 2001; Mayer et al., 1995; Mishra, 1996; Sitkin & Roth, 1993). For instance, by defining trust as “socially learned and socially confirmed expectations”, Barber (1983, p. 164-165) included “competence trust” (i.e., the belief that the interaction partner exhibits a technically competent role performance) as well as goodwill in his trust conceptualization. Likewise, Nooteboom (1996) notes that trust may be affected by an interaction partner’s ability to perform according to earlier agreements. In their empirical study, Swan et al. (1988) found that competence, a similar concept, principally contributes with the second dimension for trustee’s honesty and responsibility to perceptions of trustworthiness. In general, ability is considered to be strongly linked to competence and expertise within a specific domain, as well as to all characteristics that are required to successfully accomplish a given task or job (e.g., Barber, 1983; Lee & Turban, 2001). For Mayer et al. (1995, p. 718), ability is “the group of skills, competencies, and characteristics that enable a party to have influence within some specific domain”. Mayer et al.’s (1995) view is subsequently picked up by various authors - also in the context of eWOM (e.g., Ridings et al. 2002). Similarly, Gefen (2002) considers ability as the truster’s beliefs about the skills and competencies of the trusted party, and for Tan and Sutherland (2004) it’s the truster’s thought that the trustee is able to accomplish a task. These conceptualizations are also applicable to the context of eWOM. Consumers who are accessing eWOM have a mutual interest in making better purchasing decisions and hence are typically concerned about the ability of online reviews and recommendations with respect to this mutual concern. From the consumers’ perspective, the primary functions or tasks of eWOM are to furnish consumers with meaningful information about the true/real characteristics of a market offering (e.g., product) and consumption recommendations that enable them to make better purchase-related decisions. Trusting consumers think that online reviews furnish them with important and relevant product insights gained from own consumption experiences which would not been accessible otherwise. Readers of OCR are interested in viewing the market offering from the consumer perspective and want to find out whether purchasing the product, service, etc. enables them to reach the desired consumption goal. A key question therefore is: are reviews and reviewers both capable of providing these insights? Therefore, in the context of eWOM, this study defines (eWOM) ability as the consumer’s belief that eWOM is a useful, knowledgeable and adequate source of purchase-relevant information and/or recommendations.

Research has identified the concept of integrity/honesty as being another critical dimension of relational trust (Gabarro, 1978; Mayer et al., 1995). Here, most scholars tend to provide quite broad and multifaceted definitions of the construct; however, the very nature of the concept is evident. Integrity is commonly conceptualized as the trusted party’s moral character, honesty, truthfulness, and sincerity (Butler & Cantrell, 1984; Larzerele & Huston, 1980; McKnight & Chervany, 2002). For example, according to Lee and Turban (2001), integrity captures the truster’s beliefs of the trustee’s honesty, dependability, reliability, credibility, and also adherence to an accepted set of principles. Chen and Dhillon (2003) describe integrity as acting in a consistent, reliable, and honest manner. Based on earlier insights of Mayer et al. (1995), McKnight et al. (1998) also found integrity to be a critical component of trust and furthermore conceptualize integrity as two distinct constructs, namely honesty and predictability (consistency). For Bhttner and Goritz (2008), integrity implies that the trustee follows a set of desirable principles. Similarly, Gefen (2002b) defines this trust dimension as the truster’s belief that the trusted party adheres to accepted rules of conduct, norms or standards, such as honesty and keeping promises. Consistently with prior conceptualizations (e.g., Soh et al., 2009), the thesis at hand defines (eWOM) integrity/honesty as a consumer’s belief that the information conveyed in eWOM is believable, truthful, verified and adheres to moral standards. Integrity applies to eWOM communication because it is the believability or honesty that is assumed to be a key expression of trust in online reviews and recommendations that allows consumers to rely on this kind of information. Without reliability, their information value would be zero.

Benevolence captures another important element of trust identified in previous studies (e.g., Larzerele & Huston, 1980; Solomon, 1960; Strickland, 1958). In literature, it seems to be agreed that benevolence implies a perception of trustee’s responsiveness, goodwill, positive intent and/or good motives. Further, the concept relates to the attachment the trustee has towards the truster. For instance, according to Mayer et al. (1995), benevolence is the truster’s perception of the trustee’s positive orientation toward his/her relationship partner. A similar definition is advanced by Doney and Cannon (1997). In their work on trust, McKnight et al. (2002a) conceptualize benevolence as the perception of the trusting party of whether the trustee acts in the interaction partner’s best interest and/or out of genuine concern. The positive motive aspect is emphasized by Lee and Turban (2001), who define benevolence as “the extent to which the trusting party believes that the trusted party wants to do good things [...]” - a view that is also advanced by subsequent research (e.g., Cheung & Lee, 2006). According to Bhttner et al. (2008), benevolence denotes that the trustee is interested in the truster’s well-being. By referring to earlier conceptualizations, this thesis defines (eWOM) benevolence as a consumer’s stable belief that eWOM is guided or motivated by the reviewer’s favourable and positive intentions toward the consumer’s welfare and not by the reviewer’s self-interest only. A consumer views eWOM-conveyed information as benevolent in the case that he/she has the perception that the source has favourable motives towards other consumers. Benevolence is an essential element of eWOM trust, since without positive reciprocation and reviewer’s altruism, the truster would view reviews and recommendations not to be genuine and reviewers to be careless or unsupportive. Benevolent reviews and recommendations are not believed to mirror opportunistic or manipulative intentions. Further, trusting consumers do not regard eWOM creators as striving to accomplish a selfish goal but believe that they are driven by their generosity towards others. Consequently, if consumers think that eWOM intends to benefit them, benevolence is generally present.

A specific dimension of trusting attitude, namely likeability, has been recognized only infrequently by researchers in their notion and definitions of trust. However, since some scholars have found emotional attitude trust as one of the dimensions of trust (Johnson-George & Swap, 1982; Lewis & Weigert, 1985; Rempel et al., 1985; Swan et al., 1985) that potentially exerts meaningful influence on the level of perceived trust, this study regards likeability (as a key indicator of affect) to be another key component of trust. McAllister (1995) is one of the leading authors who developed a comprehensive model of affect that includes both trusting beliefs as well as trusting attitudes. Here, the author emphasized that the emotional content of trust is based on “emotional ties” between the interaction partners. A similar notion (i.e., emotional bonds) is used by Lewis and Weigert (1985). Subsequent research has shown that the strong emotion of liking represents another aspect of affect-based trust. For example, Johnson-George and Swap’s (1982) research finds that one of the identified trust factors is composed of four liking items which parallel three additional trust items. Similarly, Swan et al. (1988) conclude that likeability is truly a component of trust as they found that to trust means developing feelings of liking the trust object. Often, likeability has been measured in terms of perceived attractiveness, feeling of liking, enjoyability, and positive affection (Ganesan, 1994; Haley, 1996; Ohanian, 1990; Young & Albaum, 2003). Hence, this study defines the dimension of (eWOM) likeability as the consumer’s positive emotions toward eWOM. OCR communication regularly shares the same content as person-to-person interaction: it contains personal feelings, opinions, normative recommendations and also emotions of the reviewer. Therefore, it is likely that this kind of information also results in affective responses of the consumer which finally mirror the degree of perceived trust. This is especially true in the long run.

The consumer’s willingness to rely on (or trusting intention) the trustee represents the behavioural component of trust. As referred to earlier, to trust means that the truster has a willingness to be vulnerable and/or take a risk by relying on the trustee’s words or behaviours (Kaplan & Nieschwietz, 2003; McKnight & Chervany, 2001; Stewart, 2003). In the context of eWOM, there are multiple forms of uncertainties, vulnerabilities, and risks. For instance, according to Racherla, Mandviwalla and Connolly (2012), consumers have to deal with two different uncertainties. First, for consumers it is often hard to infer the true characteristics of the reviewed product. If the consumer is not able to identify adequate market information, diverse consumption risks may arise because of undesirable outcomes of relying on eWOM for making purchasing decisions. For instance, consumers have to bear the risk that when following the advice of eWOM recommendations, they may suffer from a financial loss due to unsatisfactory products or services and/or ordering at an unreliable vendor. The functional risk is more incalculable in the context of hedonic, experience and credence goods, where it is difficult to quantify the product in terms of features and functionalities. On the other hand, a social-emotional loss may arise in cases where the consumer’s peer group has a negative judgment about the selection or use of the wrong brand. Second, readers of eW OM have to deal with the uncertainty regarding the integrity and motives of fellow shoppers that provide the reviews (Racherla et al., 2012). For instance, Chevalier and Mayzlin (2006) note in their research that marketers have numerous incentives to disguise promotional reviews as legitimate consumer recommendations in order to directly influence consumers’ evaluations of their products. This uncertainty and the inherent risk of misleading market communication is likely emphasized by various researchers (e.g., Mayzlin, 2006; Pan & Chiou, 2011; Racherla et al., 2012). Hence, (eWOM) trusting intention can be defined as the consumer’s willingness to rely on eWOM and accepting potential loss by applying eWOM-conveyed information.

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