Some early trust researchers view distrust as merely the opposite of high trust and argue that trust and distrust (also called mistrust) are two extreme values along the same dimension (e.g., Rotter, 1967). For example, Luhmann (1979), one of the most thorough theorists in the field of trust research, states that trust and distrust are simply one and the same construct, as they represent distinct functional equivalents that impact human thinking and behaviour separately. The scholar further suggests that trust cannot exist without distrust and that a change in either without a corresponding change in the other can be harmful (Benamati, Serva & Fuller, 2006).
In contrast, a more recent literature stream views distrust as qualitatively independent from trust (e.g., Lewicki, McAllister & Bies, 1998; Sitkin & Roth, 1993). In essence, these studies commonly suggest that both constructs coexist simultaneously and have differential effects on behaviour (Kramer, 1999; Lewicki et al., 1998). Specifically, researchers of this school of thought also see distrust having a more negative impact on an individual’s risk-taking decisions than could be attributed to a simple impairment of trust (Ou, Abratt & Dion, 2006). One of the broadest definitions of trust is the notion of the truster’s willingness to become vulnerable to the trustee, having taken into consideration certain attributes of the trustee (Mishra, 1996; Rosseau et al., 1998; Zand, 1972). Such a definition can be applied to three types of trustees, as the truster could show a willingness to become vulnerable to (1) specific others, e.g. another person (i.e., interpersonal trust); (2) a context, e.g. the Internet, OCR (i.e., institutional trust); and/or (3) general others (i.e., dispositional trust) (McKnight et al., 2004). By assuming that distrust is the opposite of trust, as Lewicki et al. (1998) argue, distrust can be defined as the unwillingness to become vulnerable to a trustee - another person, institution, or people generally - having considered characteristics of that trustee (McKnight et al., 2004).
Lewicki et al. (1998) extensively argue for a conceptual separation of the two constructs. The scholars categorically state that “high distrust is not the same thing as low trust” (p. 444). Lewicki et al. offer three reasons for this claim, as they advance the insight that both constructs have different consequences and causes as well as factor separately. In their explanation, they conceptually illustrate various situations where combinations of high-low trust and distrust may co-exist. Later, these arguments found support by empirical evidence (McKnight et al., 2004). McKnight et al. (2001, p. 40) agree on the separation of the constructs by stating “distrust is the distinct opposite of trust”. They argue that trust researchers often define trust in terms of specific feelings of security (e.g., Lewis & Weigert, 1985a; Rempel et al., 1998) or comfort (Eayrs, 1993). Trust focuses on more favourable emotional reactions (like hope, confidence, and assurance) towards another person (or thing) and is, as a consequence, positive-valent. In contrast, distrust is based on more negative emotions, such as suspicion, wariness and fear (Deutsch, 1958; Lewicki et al., 1998) and hence is negative-valent (Benamati et al., 2006). Accordingly, Lewicki et al. (1998) describe that trust is best specified by hope, faith, assurance, confidence, and initiative. In contrast, distrust could be described with terms like fear, doubt, scepticism, cynism, wariness and watchfulness (Ou et al., 2006). In parallel, in one of the most influential trust studies McKnight et al. (2002a, p. 341) argue that “negatively worded trust items tend to factor separately into distrust, which is conceptually separate from trust [...] we used all positively worded [trust] items”. McKnight et al. (2001) conclude by referring to Luhmann (1979) that if a person distrusts, he/she experiences a more frantic or emotionally arousing state which leads to this psychological reaction. Hence, according to the authors, the emotional intensity of distrust clearly distinguishes it from trust. McKnight and Chervany (2001) assume that trust as well as distrust both have cognitive and affective elements. This contrasts McAllister’s (1995) approach, which proposes that trust is either cognitive or
affective. Nevertheless, behind both constructs lie similar functional mechanisms, as trust and distrust both reduce social complexity: While trust fulfils this function by compelling a person to undertake behaviours that expose the truster to risk, distrust reduces complexity by compelling an individual to take protective action to minimize risk (Luhmann, 1979; Benamati et al., 2006).
In accordance with the literature discussed above (e.g., McKnight et al., 2004) this thesis defines eWOM distrust as a consumer’s unwillingness to rely on information and recommendations conveyed in online customer reviews having considered the motives of peer reviewers and the characteristics of reviews in general. It is assumed that this concept is separated from and the opposite of eWOM trust, as it is a facilitator of stronger negative attitudes and behaviours that cannot be triggered by a person’s lack of trust in online customer reviews alone. Therefore, it is theorized that persons with high levels of eWOM distrust are, for instance, characterized by a recognizable level of fear of being exploited by reviewers and they also perceive unique negative emotions towards online reviews in general.