The Role of Psychology in Understanding Online Trust

The Role of Psychology in Understanding Online Trust

Helen S. Jones (University of Dundee, UK) and Wendy Moncur (University of Dundee, UK)
Copyright: © 2018 |Pages: 24
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-4053-3.ch007


Across many online contexts, internet users are required to make judgments of trustworthiness in the systems or other users that they are connecting with. But how can a user know that the interactions they engage in are legitimate? In cases where trust is manipulated, there can be severe consequences for the user both economically and psychologically. In this chapter, the authors outline key psychological literature to date that has addressed the question of how trust develops in online environments. Specifically, three use cases in which trust relationships emerge are discussed: crowdfunding, online health forums, and online dating. By including examples of different types of online interaction, the authors aim to demonstrate the need for advanced security measures that ensure valid trust judgments and minimise the risk of fraud victimisation.
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As our lives transition further into the digital world, the role of trust in day-to-day interactions is transforming. Internet users are required to make judgments about others without any of the emotional and behavioural cues that would be available in a face-to-face interaction (Rocco, 1998; Cheshire, 2011; Hancock & Guillory, 2015). Where interactions involve risk, through the disclosure of personal or financial information, a need for trust in other users and systems emerges. Although the development of trusting relationships online can benefit the user, both economically and personally, anonymity and the lack of accountability on the internet (Friedman, Kahn, & Howe, 2000) mean that this trust can also be manipulated more readily.

In cases where trust is misplaced or manipulated, users can suffer both financial loss and psychological trauma, depending on the nature of the relationship. Online fraud costs the UK almost £11 billion per year (Action Fraud, 2016), and often results from abuse of a user’s natural inclination to trust others. Examples include the theft of money through online transactions where the item never arrives or, on a more personal level, romance fraud where a user is manipulated into sending money to a fraudster posing as a potential romantic partner in need of financial assistance. In extreme cases, misplaced trust online may lead to physical harm, for example if a user makes the decision to meet with someone from a dating website whose motives turn out to be malicious. At the same time, legitimate organisations are impeded by a lack of trust from users who are overcautious and unwilling to divulge information online (Wang & Emurian, 2005). This means that withholding trust where it is warranted can result in missed opportunities for both the user and the organisations that are losing custom (Friedman, Khan, & Howe, 2000). It is therefore crucial that an optimal balance is reached to encourage users to make effective and accurate trust judgments online.

In this chapter, the authors will consider existing models of trust behaviour alongside insights from psychology and information systems that inform our understanding of the formation of trust beliefs and influence behaviour. The chapter will go on to consider three specific online scenarios in which trust is a prerequisite to successful interaction: crowdfunding, health forums, and online dating. These three scenarios cover a range of relationship types, from business-like investments through crowdfunding platforms, to personal and intimate relationship building through online dating. The commonality between all three though is that they emphasise a current trend towards a collaborative society and economy. Moving away from a need for institutional trust, these examples emphasise the need to understand how trust dynamics work between users and how social information can influence trust. By choosing to focus on these varying scenarios, the authors hope to demonstrate the diversity of risk faced online, whilst highlighting fairly underexplored examples of peer-to-peer interactions that are rapidly becoming the cornerstone to our digital lives.

There are parallels that can be drawn between crowdfunding and more traditional e-commerce transactions online, although the lack of legal regulation around crowdfunding means that this is an inherently riskier form of transaction. As an investment, rather than purchase, the funder has no guarantee that the product or organisation will be delivered as advertised. Similarly, engagement with health forums and online dating sites may be compared to traditional chat forum conversations in that they are computer mediated interactions between strangers. However, the personal and often intimate nature of these conversations means that users are likely to divulge information that can leave them in a more vulnerable position. As such there is an even more crucial need to ensure that the information people are sharing in such scenarios online is done so in a secure manner, and only with individuals who warrant trust. The potential to manipulate trust in these scenarios will be discussed, providing an overview of the central issues to be addressed in future research and security tools that are designed to encourage secure online connectivity.

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