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Is Trust Always Better than Distrust? The Potential Value of Distrust in Newer Virtual Teams Engaged in Short-Term Decision-Making


The debate on the benefits of trust or distrust in groups has generated a substantial amount of research that points to the positive aspects of trust in groups, and generally characterizes distrust as a negative group phenomenon. Therefore, many researchers and practitioners assume that trust is inherently good and distrust is inherently bad. However, recent counterintuitive evidence obtained from face-to-face (FtF) groups indicates that the opposite might be true; trust can prove detrimental, and distrust instrumental, to decision-making in groups. By extending this argument to virtual teams (VTs), we examined the value of distrust for VTs completing routine and non-routine decision tasks, and showed that the benefits of distrust can extend to short-term VTs. Specifically, VTs seeded with distrust significantly outperformed all control groups in a non-routine decision-making task. In addition, we present quantitative evidence to show that the decision task itself can significantly affect the overall levels of trust/distrust within VTs. In addition to its practical and research implications, the theoretical contribution of our study is that it extends to a group level, and then to a VT setting, a theory of distrust previously tested in the psychology literature in the context of completing non-routine and routine decision tasks at an individual level.

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  1. It is important to recognize that relative levels of trust and distrust might vary among individuals within a VT, as some people are naturally more trusting and some are naturally more distrusting, although this is mitigated by random assignment. To account for this variance, McKnight et al. (2002b) measured the difference between an individual’s disposition to trust and his or her current level of trust. As a result, the difference between these two constructs more fully represents change in trust, due to an outside stimulus (in this study, from a routine or non-routine problem). McKnight et al. (2004) applied this same principle to disposition to distrust and current level of distrust. Disposition to trust is defined as the tendency of an individual to trust others; disposition to distrust is the tendency of an individual to distrust others (McKnight et al. 2004).

  2. Previous research has demonstrated that students can be adequate subjects from which to generalize, as long as they are adequate for the research task used in a given study (Gordon et al. 1986; Greenberg 1987). As McKnight et al. (2002b) argued, students are appropriate for these types of trust studies, because such studies do not require an organizational context. Our pilot studies indicated wide variance in the operationalized problem domain with a broader range of participants. We discovered that the baseline knowledge of students was easily controlled because we could use technology and topics they worked on directly in a course in which they were all enrolled. This allowed for much more control and reliability in constructing routine and non-routine decision problems. To do so for a broader audience, in which Excel skills would be far more varied, would have been unwieldy from an experimental viewpoint.

    Although generalizability is always a concern for experiments, Lynch (1999) has observed: “Findings from single real-world settings and specific sets of ‘real’ people are no more likely to generalize than are findings from single laboratory settings with student subjects. Just as in the laboratory, the real world varies in background facets of subject characteristics, setting, context, relevant history, and time.” That is, any sample would have its peculiarities, and complete generalizability is only possible following replication of multiple samples in multiple settings. For similar reasons, students have been used effectively in trust-related team/group research in many studies appearing in top technology and behavioral science journals. A non-exhaustive list includes (Alnuaimi et al. 2010; Chidambaram and Jones 1993; Hill et al. 2009; Jarvenpaa et al. 1998, 2004; Kanawattanachal and Yoo 2007; Lowry et al. 2010; Warkentin et al. 1997; Zhang et al. 2007).


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We acknowledge and appreciate previous work, edits, and reviews from several academics who have made this article possible: John Romney, Bonnie Anderson, Linn Van Dyne, Anil Aggarwal, Jeffrey L. Jenkins, David Wilson, Laura Rawlins, and Whitney Lindsley.

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Correspondence to Paul Benjamin Lowry.

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Appendix 1. Measurement Items Detail

Appendix 1. Measurement Items Detail






Disposition to trust



In general, people really do care about the well-being of others.

(McKnight et al. 2002a)



The typical person is sincerely concerned about the problems of others.



Most of the time, people care enough to try to be helpful, rather than just looking out for themselves.




In general, most folks keep their promises.



I think people generally try to back up their words with their actions.



Most people are honest in their dealings with others.




I believe that most professional people do a very good job at their work.



Most professionals are very knowledgeable in their chosen field.



A large majority of professional people are competent in their area of expertise.


DT-Trusting stance (DTTS)


I usually trust people until they give me a reason to doubt when I first meet them.



I generally give people the benefit of the doubt when I first meet them.



My typical approach is to trust new acquaintances until they prove I should not trust them.


Disposition to distrust

Suspicion of Humanity-Benevolence


I worry that people are usually out for their own good.

Adapted from McKnight et al. (2004) for this study



It concerns me a lot that people pretend to care more about one another than they really do.



I fear that most people inwardly dislike putting themselves out to help other people.


Suspicion of Humanity-Integrity


Unfortunately, most people would tell a lie if they could gain by it.



It’s a troubling fact that people don’t always hold to the standard of honesty they claim.



Sadly, most people would cheat on their income tax if they thought they could get away with it.


Suspicion of Humanity-Competence


I get uncomfortable because many professionals are not as knowledgeable in their field as you would expect.



I am nervous that most professionals do a haphazard job at what they do.



Concern is justified, since many professionals are not really competent in their area of expertise.


Distrusting Stance


I’m usually cautious about relying on people when I first work with them.



When I first meet people, I tend to watch their actions closely.



I typically have suspicious feelings toward new acquaintances until they prove to me that I can trust them.



I am hesitant to trust people until after I have proven them.


Trusting beliefs



I believe that my group would act in my best interest.

Adapted from McKnight et al. (2002a) for this study



If I required help, my group would do its best to help me.



My group is interested in my well-being, not just their own.




My group is truthful in its dealings with me.



I would characterize my group as honest.



My group would keep its commitments.



My group is sincere and genuine.




My group is competent and effective in solving Excel problems.



My group performs its role of assisting in problem solving very well.



Overall, my group is capable and proficient in Excel problem solving



In general, my group is very knowledgeable about Excel.


Distrusting beliefs



I am not sure that my group would act in my best interest.

Adapted from McKnight and Choudhury (2006) for this study



If I required help, I feel apprehensive about whether my group would do its best to help me.



I suspect that the members in my group are interested in just their own well-being, not in my well-being.




I am worried about whether my group would be truthful in its dealings with me.



I would feel cautious about characterizing my group as honest.



It is uncertain whether my group would keep its commitments.



I am uneasy about whether my group is sincere and genuine.




I am skeptical about whether my group is competent and effective in solving the problems.



I feel uncertain about whether my group performs its role of solving spreadsheet problems.



Overall, I worry about whether my group members are capable and proficient users of spreadsheet software.



I feel nervous about how knowledgeable my group is about spreadsheet software.


Note: Except where noted, all items were anchored as 7-point Likert-like scales \((1{-}strongly\,disagree \ldots 7{-}strongly\,agree)\)

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Lowry, P.B., Schuetzler, R.M., Giboney, J.S. et al. Is Trust Always Better than Distrust? The Potential Value of Distrust in Newer Virtual Teams Engaged in Short-Term Decision-Making. Group Decis Negot 24, 723–752 (2015).

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  • Trust
  • Distrust
  • Virtual teams
  • Team performance
  • Decision making
  • Decision quality