When Trust Works and When It Doesn’t: Key Findings

Marketing trust is essential to facilitating exchange and connections in the economy.

Research

Contributor / Kent Grayson

Associate Professor of Marketing, Bernice and Leonard Lavin Professorship
Kellogg School of Management / Marketing

Trust has both positive and negative economic consequences. It facilitates exchange, and it keeps employees honest more effectively than coercive techniques. And when consumers trust an institution, they are more likely to give it leeway to experiment. Yet there is also a dark side to trust. Under certain circumstances, it can hinder economic productivity and lead to less beneficial outcomes.

Transcript

So, the most influential and highly cited papers on marketing and trust are the oldest. And it’s not just because they’ve been around for a while but because they were the first to document, fundamentally, that trust does facilitate economic exchange, that it does create better outcomes for buyers and for sellers.

And equally important, it showed that trust is a key mediator between things that buyers and sellers can do and these wonderful outcomes.

So, for example, why does more communication with your exchange partner make things better? It’s not because there’s something inherently great about communication, but it’s because communication leads to higher trust, which then leads to better exchange outcomes.

So, since marketing researchers have found this main finding that trust helps economic exchange, researchers since then have published some really influential papers documenting times and conditions and circumstances when trust may not lead to better economic exchange outcomes.

So, one example is a really influential paper by Atuahene-Gima and Li. They looked at relationships between sales managers and sales people. And what they found is, first of all, that when sales managers make themselves more accessible (they’re around more and they communicate more), the sales person is going to trust more in the sales manager.

And you would think that that would lead to greater sales. You would think that it would lead to great sales, but it turns out it doesn’t.

And what that leads to is the conclusion that a sales manager can build trust in a sales person by being more accessible, but one of the downsides of that is that the sales person starts to learn about the sales managers — the things that the sales manager pays attention to, the thing that the sales manager doesn’t pay attention to.

And as a result of learning about those things, the sales person can use information asymmetry to their advantage. If they know that the sales manager isn’t monitoring certain things like whether they go out on certain sales calls, it means that they can cut corners out in the field, and that will hurt sales.

What’s cool about this paper is that it highlights that trust is enhanced by information exchange, but information exchange also gives buyers and sellers information about how they can better game the system.

So, that’s an example of some research that has shown that trust doesn’t always have positive outcomes, that there’s a dark side to it, that inherently, it can be good or bad.

Related to that, there is another string of research that has looked at contexts where trust is going to be more or less influential. And again, there’s several papers that look at that. One example of a great paper that looks at that is a paper by Garbarino and Johnson.

And what they did is, they looked at relationships between people who buy tickets for a theater company and how their experience at the theater company influences their likelihood of buying another ticket.

But the interesting thing that they did is that they divided the people they surveyed into two groups. One group are people who are subscribers; people who have bought a subscription and who go to the theater a lot. And another group are people who are just individual ticket buyers and they’re probably not going to the theater a lot.

What Garbarino and Johnson found — first of all, they confirmed the finding that I’ve been talking about all along, which is that trust is this key mediator between things that companies can do and outcomes that companies want. But they found that trust is a key mediator only for the subscription holders.

For people who are individual ticket buyers, the main factor that influences whether they’re going to buy again is their satisfaction with the performance that they saw. If they liked the performance, they’re more likely to buy again. And trust didn’t have any influence at all.

And the interesting thing about that is that for subscription holders, satisfaction was not a key mediator for future intent, or for likelihood of buying another ticket.

In other words, as a subscriber, you could be a little bit less satisfied with the performance and still have the intention of buying another ticket as long as you trust the theater company.

So, one of the interesting things about this paper is that, first of all, it shows us something that we’ve already talked about before, which is this idea that if you have trust in a buyer, that they can maybe take advantage of that.

If you think about the theater company, they could have slightly worse performances and still have those subscription holders. But Garbarino and Johnson emphasize another aspect, which is—when you have a relationship that’s trusting, there’s more room for experimentation.

So, this theater company could do an experimental production that might not go over very well, but might not also lose their customers. So, rather than just saying that trust has a dark side and people can take advantage of it in bad ways, it also suggests that trust has a side where people can take advantage of it in good ways.

One example of an influential paper that takes more of an economic perspective is by Brown, D.V., and Lee.

They studied the hotel industry, and in particular, relationships between the corporate office and the people who own or run individual hotels. And what they looked at is what safeguards the corporate office can put in place so that the individual hotels are less likely to take advantage of information asymmetry.

Now, what do I mean by safeguards? I mean these contracts or agreements that can be put in place to try and keep people from doing things that you don’t want them to do.

One safeguard that can be put in place is that the corporate office can actually own the hotel. And when they own the hotel, they’re able to come in and really demand that people do the things that they have to do.

Another safeguard that people can put in place is to monitor, is to put monitoring mechanisms or have people on the property monitoring what is going on and reporting back to the head office. What this paper did is, it distinguished between two types of safeguards.

One is more economic, like the ownership one. The other kind of safeguard is a little bit more social. They are things like acculturating people to a particular corporate culture, which means more training sessions or more corporate events that help people to understand what the norms and values of the corporation are.

And what this paper found is that more rational or economic safeguards actually have a backlash effect — that when people feel like they’re being monitored, for example, they’re more likely to break trust and behave opportunistically than for safeguards that are more about bringing people aboard and making them part of the culture.

So, what this suggests is that safeguards are, first of all, not always going to universally minimize opportunism, even though they might rationally seem like they do, but also that people can resent safeguards; they can feel bad about safeguards, and they can actually have the opposite effect that the company may intend.

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3 Components of Trust in Buyer-Seller Relationships: A Marketer’s Perspective

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Contributor / Kent Grayson
Kent Grayson Marketing Breaches,Definitions,Economic Exchange,Legal Guarantees,Mergers and Acquisitions,Regulation,Vulnerability The first thing that people think about when they think about marketing is advertising because that’s the primary way that companies communicate with customers.

And because of that, a lot of people think that if you study marketing, you probably study advertising. And there are marketing researchers who do study advertising. But there are also marketing researchers who study a lot of other things.

And a common interest that unifies all marketing researchers is not an interest in advertising but an interest in what makes economic exchange possible, an interest in the conditions that facilitate economic exchange.

By economic exchange I mean any buyer-seller relationship. So, it could be a relationship between a consumer-products firm and a shopper in a grocery store. It could be a raw-material supplier and an automobile manufacturer. It could be a client and a lawyer. It could be a lemonade stand and a neighbor.

Any buyer-seller relationship like that, marketing researchers are interested in, what factors facilitate that exchange, make it happen, make sure that the buyer and seller are happy at the end? And also, what factors might hinder that exchange?

So, among people who study marketing, there is a bunch of us who study trust. And what’s interesting about trust and trust in marketing is that trust can be broken. We can get burned by trust. And for me, one of the most interesting things is understanding how we as consumers navigate this minefield of the possibility that trust might be broken.

One of the key things that makes it possible for trust to get broken in economic exchanges is this thing called “information asymmetry.” Information asymmetry refers to the fact that buyers know more about themselves than the sellers do, and sellers know more about themselves than buyers do.

And buyers and sellers can take advantage of that information asymmetry and create conditions where they get more out of the exchange than maybe they deserve. But let’s look at information asymmetry as a problem from the buyer’s perspective to start with.

So, let’s say you go into the grocery store, and you see on the shelf a product that promises to clean your clothes if you just hang up the article of clothing and you spray it with this bottle three times. And they claim that it’s going to wash your clothes just as well as in a washing machine.

The thing is, you know that when you buy that product, you’re not going to know if it’s going to work until after you give the supermarket its money, after you drive home, and after you try it on maybe a few articles of clothing to make sure that it doesn’t fade certain clothing or stain certain clothing.

And, on the other hand, the company knows a lot more about how well it works and under what conditions it works and under what conditions it doesn’t work — because no product is perfect. And they may take advantage of that.

They may put only in the fine print that it doesn’t work on jeans or it doesn’t work on cotton, or they may create a formulation that makes it look like your clothes are clean, smell like they are clean, but it actually doesn’t clean as well as a washing machine does.

So, when you as a buyer are about to make that purchase, you have to have a level of trust in the purchase and in the person selling the product. And marketing researchers are interested in what brings you to that point of trusting the product.

Now, the really cool thing about buyer-seller relationships and information asymmetry is the fact that it goes both ways. So, the information asymmetry is a problem for sellers as well as for buyers.

One example is, when you rent out your apartment or you do an apartment share, you’re the seller in that situation, and the buyers are the people coming in to use your apartment. Now, you’re not going to know what they’re doing in your apartment. There is information asymmetry there.

They may use it in ways that you don’t want them to use it, or they may break something without you knowing — you might not find out until later. In business-to-business relationships, if you’re a supplier selling to a manufacturer, they may agree to, for example, pay you in 90 days. They do a big contract with you for a year, and they agree to pay you in 90 days.

But after you work with them for a while, you realize — they’re not actually paying you in 90 days. And they know that you’re not necessarily going to break off that relationship, and they’ve taken advantage of information asymmetry.

So, marketing researchers who study trust are interested in how buyers and sellers can think about all these questions, can navigate all these problems, to minimize these concerns about information asymmetry. And trust is one way that they can do that.

So, as you look across research that’s done by marketing researchers on trust, it comes really in two types. The first type is more psychological in orientation. This research looks at how people think or feel or attitudes towards trust, and how those attitudes towards trust influence their likelihood of exchange or keep them from wanting to exchange.

There is another group of research, or another area of research, where people take more of an economic perspective. And here, the focus is on the kinds of contracts or agreements or norms or expectations that buyers and sellers can bring to the exchange that keep people from taking advantage of information asymmetries and encourage them, or incentivize them, to live up to the expectations of the exchange.

So, what is trust? In marketing, we define trust in the way that many other disciplines define it — which is, it’s a willingness to depend on someone else to do something under conditions where they may not actually do the thing that you want them to do.

And marketers understand that willingness in terms of three dimensions — or three factors influence people’s willingness to depend on someone else to do something that they don’t necessarily have to do or they’re not required to do.

The first dimension, or the first influence, is competence, perceived competence: a belief that your exchange partner is competent to deliver the kinds of things that they’ve promised to do as part of the agreement.

The second dimension is honesty. It’s a belief that your exchange partner is going to tell the truth and keep their promises. The more you believe they’re honest, the more you trust them and the more the economic exchange is enhanced.

The last dimension of trust, or the last factor of trust, is benevolence. It’s a belief that your exchange partner will think about you at critical times in the exchange when they can use information asymmetry for their own benefit, and they’re willing to think about your needs and wants.

And they’re maybe even willing to make sacrifices because they know that making you happy in the exchange is part of making a successful exchange.

Now, these three dimensions are interrelated, but honesty and benevolence are particularly highly correlated, and it’s very hard to tease them apart because a benevolent partner is often thought to be honest, and an honest partner is often thought to be benevolent.
Too much institutional trust and you throw your money out the window.

Regulating Trust: Love It or Hate It?

Applications
Contributor / Kent Grayson
Kent Grayson Marketing Institutions and Context,Regulation,Reputation Management,Sharing Economy,Social Psychology BUMPER: Regulating Trust: Love it or Hate it?

When we think about trust in the marketplace, we’re usually thinking about trust between the buyer and the seller and, do I trust you enough to give you money so that when you give me a product or when you provide a service, that it’s going to be good?

But there’s another level of trust that exists in exchange relationships, and that’s trust in the context in which the exchange occurs.

There’s a lot of research on the relationship between institutional trust and individual trust, and some research suggests that the more institutional trust exists, the less people feel like they have to build trusting relationships, because they’re protected by the institution.

But there’s also research that suggests that the more we trust in institutions, that provides a useful foundation for building even stronger trust with exchange partners. And the jury is still out on which is true and which isn’t.

A lot of firms don’t like to be monitored by professional associations, and they don’t like rules and laws that keep them from doing things that they might want to do with customers, and those laws and rules can make companies be less efficient and less profitable.

But they can also enhance the trust that the customer has in the institutions that protect trust and without them, the consumer may not want to engage with firms in the entire category.

And this is particularly relevant for new industries. We hear a lot about the sharing economy. One of the problems about some companies that operate in the sharing economy is that these institutions don’t necessarily exist which protect consumers from these problems.

If you’re working in a sector where there isn’t institutional trust, you have to build your trust one person at a time. At the grassroots level. And it seems like, for some of the companies that are operating in the sharing company, that if they do that and they start to build a critical mass, then the critical mass of trust within a particular social network serves as a certain institutional trust.

BUMPER: When Trust Makes Things Too Easy

Based on the research that I’ve done with a colleague in the mountain climbing industry, it seems that as consumers, when we’re going about our daily decision-making process, we sometimes are willing to place faith in institutions without necessarily knowing what those institutions do and without investigating.

So, the FDA — people think, “Oh, well, I’m going to buy this new product because the FDA approved it.” But there are lots of people who think the FDA is not very trustworthy. And there are reasons to maybe think that in certain product categories.

But many people still sort of, almost without thinking about it—it makes things easy. As I mentioned, institutional trust makes things easy for consumers. They believe, “OK, well I can trust this,” when that trust is misplaced.

And the amount of implicit trust (let me put it this way), the amount of implicit trust that exists in the institution of guiding and maybe in the professional associations that monitor is amazing to me as someone who doesn’t climb mountains.

They say, “Well, I went to a website, and I found this person, and my friend says they’re good, so I signed up for them to give them 60,000 dollars, to have them take me to the highest peak in the world where I might die.” And they’re still willing to place trust.
Measuring trust in the credit industry is key. Without it, you might as well cut your cards and move on.

How Credit Systems Guarantee Trust: Key Findings

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Contributor / Bruce Carruthers
Bruce Carruthers Sociology Credit,Government,Measurement,Regulation Trust is an everyday problem. It’s ubiquitous. It’s something that we face all the time, but it’s not always something that we consciously think about.

These kinds of practical rules of thumb really drive the kind of calculative, quick evaluative decisions that cab drivers make every day, thousands of times.

So, credit is a big thing, and trust in credit is an absolutely crucial issue.

Lenders are vulnerable to the borrowers, depending on the size of the loan, and they’re uncertain about whether the borrowers will be willing and able to repay the loan in the future.

And the thing about credit is that modern economies absolutely depend on credit. Credit is the lifeblood of the consumer economy.

There would be no housing market; there would be no market in cars; there would be no sales and durable goods if people weren’t able to borrow money through credit cards, through mortgage loans, through car loans, and so forth to facilitate those purchases.

So, in the issue of credit, sociologists have studied how lenders actually evaluate the trustworthiness of potential borrowers. And this is done by some people in the context of bankers who are looking at customers who want personal loans or who want small-business loans — stuff like that.

And what they found is that the bankers also were concerned deeply about the trustworthiness of the borrowers.

So, they do collect a lot of data. But it turns out that even when you’ve got all the quantitative information you possibly want — you’ve got the credit scores; you’ve got the loan-to-value ratio; you’ve got all that kind of stuff — it still turns out that sometimes the numbers are equivocal.

What are called “relational proxies” become very important. And that’s a situation where the lending officer will kind of ask themselves, “Do I trust this borrower? Do I think that they are of good character? Do I believe that they’re being really sincere when they say that they plan to repay the loan?”

Those studies of credit focus on situations where lenders and borrowers can actually meet face-to-face, or one person can look across the table at another person and decide whether they’re trustworthy.

But we know that credit in modern society has become much bigger than that. It now is mass credit. Millions and even billions of people are obtaining credit, and they’re getting it from folks who have never met them, will never meet them, and will never sit across the table from them.

How is this possible? Well, the answer is, what we have developed to manage the trust problems in mass credit is a giant informational apparatus that provides lots of information about would-be borrowers and their trustworthiness to would-be lenders and doesn’t depend so much on face-to-face interactions and direct contact.

So, the importance of this kind of informational apparatus is really made obvious in studies of how credit card systems, which are very common in the West and which have been around in the U.S. since the 1950s, have migrated to the post-socialist societies of Central and Eastern Europe — places like Russia.

And what happened was, it turns out that to build a credit card system in Russia is very difficult as compared to the United States.

It turned out that a lot of this background information system that we in the West rely on to track people’s credit records, to keep score of whether they bounce checks and whether they fall behind on payments and how good they are and how in debt they are — that apparatus didn’t exist in places like Russia and had to be built from the ground up.

And it’s that apparatus much more than old, face-to-face direct contact between lenders and borrowers that proves to be critical for the development of mass credit in both Russia but also in the United States.

So, in my own research, I’ve been very interested in the emergence, the historical emergence, of this giant informational apparatus that undergirds modern credit cards. But it turns out it undergirds lots of other forms of credit as well: bond ratings, small business credit, and whatnot.

And the big shift that I see — that started in the middle of the 19th century and which continues to this day — is a shift from credit and issues of trust that previously was posed as a matter of character: Is somebody trustworthy? How do I know that someone in their heart is trustworthy and will repay the debts? How am I connected to that person directly?

We shifted from a world in which that was how you dealt with trust to a world in which, now, we don’t worry about whether we know someone, and we don’t worry so much about their character. But we rely very heavily on all kinds of quantitative, standardized information that has been gathered and processed and interpreted by someone.

It’s no longer a world in which you as a lender have to worry about the five or ten or twenty people that you can know personally a lot about. Now you can scale it up so that you can judge the creditworthiness of millions of people — billions of people! — millions of businesses.

It’s also information that migrates in the sense that it can be used in other contexts. And so, when bond ratings were invented, they got adopted by regulatory agencies. So, public policy became beholden to bond ratings, and they got used in private contracts.

So, FICO scores, credit scores, bond ratings — these are all highly quantitative ways of evaluating trustworthiness, and they really have become how credit and trust are governed in the modern world.

Other pages in Videos:

Pages in The Trust Project at Northwestern University