THE SOURCE: “Effects of Internet Commerce on Social Trust” by Diana C. Mutz, in Public Opinion Quarterly, Fall 2009.
Hardly a day goes by without some headline declaring a new ill the Internet is visiting upon society. One oft-heard lament: Local shopkeepers are losing business to online retailers, and as a result, small interactions that once strengthened the social fabric of a neighborhood or town are no more. Is the Internet eroding the connections that keep society together?
Not at all, writes Diana C. Mutz, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania. Face-to-face interactions may be on the wane, but positive e-commerce experiences (and 80 percent of those who have purchased online characterize their experience positively) tend to boost a generalized sense of faith in other people, particularly strangers.
Earlier studies have established that people who are more trusting are more likely to participate in e-commerce in the first place. And Mutz finds that when they do so and have a positive experience, they become even more trusting. In a carefully crafted experiment, she tested the effects of good and bad online shopping experiences on people who had never bought anything on the Web before. Those whose packages arrived promptly and without hassle answered positively to survey questions about strangers’ honesty and helpfulness, and human nature’s essential goodness. Those who received broken goods and then poor customer service experienced a sharp drop in warm and fuzzy feelings toward their fellow man.
In general, people are not very trusting of online merchants to begin with. One study found that more than 60 percent of respondents believed that Web businesses were likely to try to cheat them, while only 21 percent said the same of local shops. What’s more, many more people believed that online businesses could get away with scamming their customers. Mutz suspects that it is this initial sense of apprehension followed by the pleasant surprise of an honest transaction that builds trust. When e-commerce becomes a more routine form of shopping (much as catalogs are today), no one will be surprised when an order arrives on time and as advertised, and the positive effects on general trust will diminish.
Of course, businesses act honestly because it’s in their self-interest to do so, not out of altruism. Mutz writes, “By engaging in economic transactions with those we do not know and probably will never meet, we enhance our faith in the general goodness of others. . . . Thus good business practices have important ramifications for the long-term well-being of societies.”