Reviewer Altruism and Egoism
When consumers place trust in eWOM, it is likely that this willingness is influenced by the belief in the senders’ basic motivations that are beneficial to the reader. One of these beneficial motivations is altruism. In general, altruism denotes voluntary helping actions with the ultimate goal to increase the welfare of other individuals or the community (Bickart & Schindler, 2001; Fang & Chiu, 2010). Altruism is basically an act of doing something for others and serving the public good without anticipating any extrinsic reward. The motive of the public good is linked to empathic emotions (Cheung & Lee, 2012). Altruistic persons are characterized by their generosity and kindness towards others. Empathy, a concept that mirrors feelings of sympathy, compassion, and tenderness, is viewed as the source of altruism. Empathy is a moral emotion which mirrors the person’s feeling that the pain of others matters to him/her. Previous research provides evidence that empathetic individuals are more willing to help others (Cheung & Lee, 2012). Hence, altruism is likely to lead to knowledge-sharing behaviour out of the passion of being helpful to others and the desire to improve their welfare. Various researchers have regarded altruism as a critical factor that explains individuals’ willingness to share their knowledge (Ba, 2001; Davenport & Prusak, 1998; Palmer, 1991) and it has been often described as an important motivation that drives people to actively participate in offline/online communities or social spaces (e.g., Dellarocas et al., 2007; Eagly & Chaiken, 1993) as well as accept message content. For instance, Sundaram et al. (1998) find altruism being a motive for WOM communication. The researchers conclude that informants are driven by their passion to enable others to have good experiences as they have perceived on their own or they try to prevent others from experience the problems they have encounter earlier. This research follows the work of Dichter (1966), who identified altruism as one of the major motivations for engaging in verbal information exchange. By studying the knowledge-contribution behaviour in electronic networks, Wasko and Faraj (2005) identified altruism among other motives (i.e., reputation, general reciprocity, and community interest) as a significant factor determining information exchange. Similarly, Kwok and Gao (2004) also highlighted the motivation of altruism as one of the key determinants of knowledge contribution in peer-to-peer communities.
In their research, Hennig-Thurau et al. (2004) state that the concern for others is closely intertwined with the concept of altruism (Jeong & Jang, 2011). They conclude that consumers furnish others with product information in eWOM because of the person’s desire to help fellow consumers in their buying decision, to save other persons from negative experiences, or both. Therefore, this thesis assumes that consumers are more willing to trust online reviews and recommendations when the senders of this information are considered to act on the basis of an altruistic motivation and not due to other (e.g., selfish) backgrounds. This assumption seems to be well supported by trust literature, which suggests that altruism contributes to the creation of trust (Frost et al., 1978). Altruism is regarded as being a related but separate concept from trust. While Hosmer (1995) is not clear on this, others disassociate trust from naivete, stupidity, and altruism (Friedland, 1990). The latter argument seems to be the dominant view in trust literature today. The same literature string however also supports a close relationship between altruism and components of trust. For instance, the truster’s belief of benevolence is typically seen to be mainly based on perceptions of the altruistic motivations of the trustee (Mayer et al., 1995; Wu et al., 2010). Hence, it seems reasonable to argue that perceived sender altruism is a critical determinant of trusting beliefs and therefore a likely antecedent of eWOM trust in general.
H5: A person’s trust in eWOM is significantly and positively related to perceived
Various other general perceptions or attitudes towards the reviewer could have an impact on eWOM trust formation, among them, perceived egoism, which is expected to be negatively related with the trust concept proposed in this research. Egoism can be described as an individual’s constant pursuit of his/her own self-interest or selfish goals. The sociologist and ethnologist Emile Durkheim (1951) characterizes egoism as a form of excessive individualism and a prepossession of a person that causes him/her to retrieve from the social community and to pursue personal goals at the expense of collective wealth (Rahn & Transue, 1998). Egoism seems to share some similarities with egotism or socialized narcissism (Schmalhausen, 1928) and (ethical) egoism (a moral feeling negatively associated in western societies) is often contrasted with (ethical) altruism or the felt obligation to help others (a moral feeling positively associated in western societies). Prior research has demonstrated that the more individuals think that norms of reciprocity are accepted as well as widespread in the society, the more they tend to have trust in the others’ willingness to cooperate (Coleman, 2000; Putnam, 1993). Therefore, the research at hand assumes that if online consumers view eWOM reviewers to be driven by amoral egoism, purely ego-centric motivations and reckless opportunism by abusing reviews and recommendations for personal objectives, the generalized trust in this information is likely to be reduced (Volken, 2002). Thus,
H6: A person’s trust in eWOM is significantly and negatively related to perceived
It is likely that the perceived social structure in eWOM communications also has an impact on eWOM trust formation. It is clear that all WOM information flows between the reviewer and the reader take place within a social relationship (Brown et al., 2007). Earlier research indicates that investigating the social linkage between the pairs of communication is elementary for understanding the process of WOM (Brown & Reingen, 1987; Knoke & Kuklinski, 1982). While there are different approaches to categorizing the different types and qualities of social relationships, a recognizable number of researchers have devoted their attention to the social closeness of the relationship between the information recipient and the source mirrored in the concept of tie strength (e.g., Brown & Reingen, 1987; Burgess et al., 2011; Mittal et al., 2008; Money et al., 1998). Tie strength refers to “the potency of the bond between members of a network' (Mittal et al., 2008, p. 196). Similarly, Money et al. (1998, p. 79) define tie strength as “a multi-dimensional construct that represents the strength of the dyadic interpersonal relationships in the context of social networks”. The strength of a tie is judged based on elements such as: closeness, intimacy, support and association (Frenzen & Davis, 1990). At its heart, tie strength describes the type and quality of the relationship between persons. According to Granovetter (1973), social ties should be classified as either strong or weak. Strong ties - family members, friends, spouse etc. - are characterized by a stronger and closer relationship. Members of this group belong to an individual’s personal network and are able to provide substantive as well as emotional support (Chu & Kim, 2011; Pigg & Crank, 2004). According to Walker et al. (1994, p. 57), strong ties are characterized by “(a) a sense that the relationship is intimate and special, with a voluntary investment in the tie and a desire for companionship with the partner; (b) an interest in frequent interactions in multiple contexts; and (c) a sense of mutuality of the relationship, with the partner’s needs known and supported”. Persons who are in a strong tie relationship are more likely to interact more frequently and also exchange more information when contrasted to individuals with a weak tie relationship (Brown & Reingen, 1987). On the other hand, weak ties represent less personal and intimate social relationships. Individuals typically have weak ties with a wide set of acquaintances, colleagues (Chu & Kim, 2011) or with persons who are not personally known by the individual.
Duhan et al. (1997) (among others) have found that perceptions of tie strength affect information flows and the selection of sources sought for WOM communication. For instance, it turned out that most WOM comes from those people with whom the consumer typically has strong ties. In general, stronger ties have a greater influence on the receiver’s behaviour than weaker ties. Researchers have concluded that the same influence is also evident in purchasing situations (Granovetter, 1973). This is due to the frequency and perceived importance of the social contact among strong-tie individuals (Bansal & Voyer, 2000; Browne et al., 2007) as well as due to the level of trust. Strong ties are said to evaluate products on the basis that the consumer prefers, due to their understanding of the consumer (Burgess et al., 2011).
Nonetheless, in the eWOM context, consumers often choose to interact with unfamiliar entities or strangers with whom they do not have a meaningful prior relationship (i.e., weak ties). Here, consumer are forced to make trust inferences based on generalizations and contextual information or cues (Smith et al., 2005). The consumer’s general attitude towards social closeness between the sender and the consumer is likely to represent such a generalization. It can used by the information-seeker to generally judge the trustworthiness of the comments and reviews in the Internet. Hence, it seems to be reasonable to argue that the consumers’ trust level can be expected to covariate with the perceived bonds these persons have developed with their fellow reviewers. A positive link between tie strength and trust is supported by earlier contributions by Yu and Tang (2010) and Pan and Chiou (2011).
H 7: A person’s trust in eWOM is significantly and positively related to perceived tie
strength between the reader and reviewers.
Related but conceptually distinct to tie strength is the concept of homophily (Brown et al., 2007; Brown & Reingen, 1987). Homophily refers to the extent to which individuals who interact with one another are congruent or similar in certain attributes (Rogers & Bhowmik, 1970). Numerous studies agree that friends but also members of a social network tend to be similar in respect to socio-demographic characteristics, including age, gender, education, as well as other perceptual attributes like beliefs and attitudes (Chu & Kim, 2011; Festinger, 1957; Gilly et al., 1998). Accordingly, Schacter (1959) notes that humans tend to affiliate with others who share similar interests (e.g., hobby) or who are in a similar situation (e.g., product choice). As individuals tend to socialize with persons with whom they share similar characteristics, interpersonal communication is more likely to occur between individuals who are alike (Lazarsfeld & Merton, 1954). It is a law-like situation that most information exchange is between persons who share some common qualities (Rogers & Bhowmik, 1970). Therefore, it is likely that the concept of homophily plays a major role in the flow of information when consumers undertake external searches (Price & Feick, 1984).
The similarity of individuals predisposes them toward a greater level of interpersonal attraction, understanding, and trust than would be expected among dissimilar individuals (Brown et al., 2007; Ruef et al., 2003). There seems to exist a profound relationship between homophily and trust, or as Eccleston and Griseri (2008, p. 575) simply put it: “people trust other people, especially those 'like themselves'”. Homophily represents a reasonable trust-building mechanism where trust is formed on common characteristics the truster perceives of the trustee (Lu et al., 2010). To date, a considerable amount of (offline) trust literature provides various hints concerning a positive relationship between similarity and a person’s willingness to trust his/her interaction partner. For instance, Crosby et al. (1990) indicate in their research that similarity between individuals enhances relationship quality within that group. Trust 146
researchers agree that shared attitudes as well as similarity in demographic backgrounds can be considered critical factors that affect perceptions of trustee’s trustworthiness and stimulate interpersonal information exchange (Brock, 1965; Feick & Higie, 1992). Here, it is demonstrated that the influence of a similar source may be greater than that of an expert source when certain conditions are met (Gilly et al., 1998) - which may be attributable to trust matters. Simultaneously, some of the best-known literature contributions in the field of marketing advance that shared values, attitudes and beliefs, behaviours, goals, and policies all impact trust formation (Dwyer & Oh, 1987; Morgan & Hunt, 1994). Doney and Cannon (1997) conclude that the buying firm’s trust in a seller’s salesperson is highest when the salesperson and the staff in the buying firm share common values and interests.
Recent studies have demonstrated that the same rules apply to the online context, as homophily has been found to be a factor responsible for the formation of trust in reviews. For instance, in online book stores, consumers are more inclined to adopt recommendations from those shoppers who appear to be more similar to them (Ziegler & Goldbeck, 2007). Racherla et al. (2008) also have found evidence that reviews with a high perceived similarity between the reviewer and the consumer have higher trust scores than reviews with low perceived similarity. Research has noticed that consumers are inveigled to show identity-granting behaviour when reviewers on Amazon.com have similar demographic characteristics. People with similar characteristics also group in the same online community, such as MySpace (Thelwall, 2009). Here, these people tend to perceive each other in a favourable manner, which enhances their trusting beliefs (Lu et al., 2010; McKnight et al., 1998). Perceived similarity between the sender and the consumer serves as an indicator for the latter that the opinions and concerns conveyed in the message comply with his/her own needs. This reinforces the extent of trust in the information. Thus:
H8: A person’s trust in eWOM is significantly and positively related to perceived
homophily of the reviewer.
Susceptibility to Interpersonal Influence
Interpersonal influence has long been recognized as a critical factor shaping consumer shopping choices (e.g.g., Ajzen & Fishbein, 1980; Kiel & Layton, 1981). Reference groups have the potential to exert social influence in different ways. First, they often provide valuable information in ambiguous, inconvenient situations (i.e., informational influence). Informational social influence has been conceptualized as the individual’s tendency to accept information from others as evidence about reality (Deutsch & Gerard, 1955). Here, social influence occurs when social others provide information that enables another’s understanding of some phenomenon (Mangleburg et al., 2004) or increases another’s knowledge about some aspects of the environment (Bearden et al., 1989). Second, they set normative standards and a frame of reference and/or enhance a person’s self-image (i.e., normative influence). According to
Deutsch and Gerard (1955, p. 629), normative social influence can be defined as “an influence to comply with the positive expectations of another”. Other authors provide similar definitions (Burnkrant & Cousineau, 1975).
Park and Lessig (1977) state that in the case of informational influence, shoppers may look for hints from other consumers whom they regard as knowledgeable or they make up their mind by observing the behaviour of others (Bailey, 2005). Prior research provides evidence that informational influence has a reasonable impact on consumer behaviour (LaTour & Manrai, 1989; Lord et al., 2001). By drawing from prior research (Kelman, 1961), marketing scholars have commonly distinguished two types of normative influence, as it has been viewed as either value-expressive or utilitarian influence (e.g., Bearden & Etzel, 1982; Bearden et al., 1990; Childers & Rao, 1992). In general, value-expressive influence is present when another person has relevance for the consumer’s self-concept (Mangleburg et al., 2004). Specifically, value expressiveness arises from the latent need of an individual to improve his/her self-image and is characterized by the individual’s want for an association with the reference group in terms of similarity and feelings towards the referent. Through the same process of identification that occurs when individuals tend to associate themselves with favourably evaluated groups, individuals also attempt to distance themselves from unfavourably evaluated groups (Bearden & Etzel, 1982; Kelman, 1961; Park & Lessig, 1977). The second type of normative influence is utilitarian influence, which basically reflects a person’s attempts to conform to the expectations of others in order to gain rewards or to avoid punishments mediated by the others (Bearden et al., 1990). These three forms of social influence (i.e., informational, value- expressive, utilitarian) have been regularly applied to consumer research approaches (Ford & Ellis, 1980; Witt & Bruce, 1972). Additionally, Bearden et al. (1990) developed their consumer susceptibility to interpersonal influence scale (SUSCEP) on these manifestations in order to measure the extent to which a person’s consumption choices are influenced by other individuals (Kropp et al., 2005).
When consumers act in a social environment, consumer science provides profound evidence that research approaches should consider someone’s base level of social influenceability, which means how receptive one is to opinions and experiences of others (Aronson, 1985; Valck et al., 2009). According to Mangleburg et al. (2004), susceptibility to interpersonal influence means that others’ opinions, claims and evaluations are important. Kropp et al. (2005) argue that this influence is performed by real or imagined others. In general, consumer susceptibility to interpersonal influence (CSII) is viewed as a personality trait that is present in different individuals in varying degrees. Due to Bearden et al. (1990), the construct is drawn from McGuire’s (1968) contribution on the concept of influenceability and is consistent with the fact that individuals differ in their response to social influence (Allen, 1965; Cox & Bauer, 1964, Kelman, 1961). In a nutshell, a consumer’s CSII is likely to determine (to a large extent) how the individual uses and values online reviewers and recommenders as a reference group (Valck et al., 2009), as well as how trustful the individual perceives the information conveyed by eWOM. Prior research has shown that WOM is most powerful when consumers are susceptible to interpersonal influence (Bearden et al. 1989). For instance, Yang and Chou (2000) conclude that CSII has a positive relationship with a consumer’s affection with WOM. It is documented that highly susceptible persons are more influenced by others when making purchase decisions (Schroder, 1996). Another research approach by Boush et al. (1994) finds that CSII is negatively associated with advertising scepticism, which means that the more susceptible to interpersonal influence, the less sceptical is the consumer about advertising claims. Similar patterns are expected to exist online. In fact, consumers who shop online and use online recommendations and reviews of other consumers find themselves in a social situation. Here, eWOM provides information about marketing phenomena and/or serves to support positively valued group norms facilitating direct social comparisons (Mangleburg et al., 2004). Therefore, it is very likely that eWOM is capable of eliciting informative as well as normative social influence on the shopper. More specifically, in this thesis it is predicted that consumers who are more susceptible to informational influence than others place higher trust in eWOM, as they have a higher need to collect information and guidance from fellow shoppers. These persons are likely to place more weight on and rely more on this kind of information than consumers that exhibit limited susceptibility to influence (Park et al., 2011). On the other hand, consumers who are susceptible to normative influence are more likely to wish to comply with the expectations of other shoppers and seek social approval in the form of others’ opinions and recommendations. Consequently, they are more willing to trust any information from significant others (Chu & Kim, 2011). Hence, it seems to be reasonable to argue that consumer susceptibility to interpersonal influence will affect their willingness to rely on eWOM in general:
H 9: A person’s trust in eWOM is significantly and positively related to susceptibility to
Attention towards Social Comparison Information (ATSCI)
A dedicated string of psychological literature deals with the investigation of the conditions under which individuals feel a need for comparison-based information. As a person’s interest in comparison with others has been found to be promoted by perceived uncertainty and risk (Festinger, 1965; Taylor et al., 1990), situations which are associated with novelty, complexity or change are most likely to stimulate the amount of comparison orientation. Also, most individuals tend to regard social comparison as important in situations that are characterized by competition (Ruble & Frey, 1991). Purchasing products online is a situation comparable to these conditions, as the task of satisfying consumption needs with a specific product is often new, and deciding on a specific product often leads to changes in life. Additionally, society tends to value smart consumers. This implies that shoppers are in a continuing competition in finding the best product and demonstrating their capabilities as a skilled consumer. Online reviews and recommendations can here be a valuable source for comparison information. A notable number of scholars suggest that certain individuals are more inclined to get involved in (and rely on) social comparison than others (e.g., Bearden & Rose, 1990; Gibbons & Buunk, 1999; Steil & Hay 1997). Here, the same conditions representing situational reasons for heightened social comparison are theorized to be interrelated due to an inner predisposition. According to this literature string, individuals who perceive uncertainty about themselves are especially induced to consult social comparison information. It is said that persons with specific personality characteristics such as low self-esteem (Waymnet & Taylor, 1995) or a high disposition to neuroticism (Lennox & Wolfe, 1984) are generally more interested. The same individual difference variables have been theorized to be related with the eWOM trust construct earlier.
Broadly, attention-towards-social-comparison-information (ATSCI) addresses the individual’s generalized tendency to conform, and it has been demonstrated that it is related with the concern towards others’ reactions (Lennox & Wolfe, 1984). Individuals who possess a high level of ATSCI are said to be well aware that their behaviour will elicit reactions in their social surrounding and they are very concerned about those reactions. As a consequence, these people constantly look for cues that give them insight into those reactions and furnish them with information about what conformative behaviour should look like. Formally, in the context of consumer behaviour, the construct is here defined as the extent to which individuals are sensitive to social comparison cues relevant to their product choices (Bearden & Rose, 1990). Persons who score high on ATSCI have the tendency to collect social cues from multiple sources of market communication (Bearden & Rose, 1990), including statements of the adequateness of consuming certain products advanced by important referent and aspiration groups (Miniard & Joel, 1983) or others’ behaviours. Similarly, advertising offers social comparison information by featuring consumer referents who benefit from positive reinforcement as a result of product consumption (Nord & Peter, 1980). Or, on the other side, marketer-driven communication doesn’t shy away from demonstrating social punishment of these referents as they fail to use the product. eWOM is a comparable informational cue as it grants consumers the insight into how the community rewards or punishes the usage of market offerings. Recommendations represent normative demands towards the consumer, which products to consume and how wise consumers should behave. Persons who are sensitive to such information not only use it but are also more likely to rely on it than others. Thus,
H10: A person’s trust in eWOM is significantly and positively related to the attention
towards social comparison information.