In today’s highly competitive business environment, firms are not only concentrating on marketing their products and/or services but also on building strong relationships with customers to create their niche in the market. As much as fostering trust is important, reducing and alleviating distrust is also important when the firms are faced with negative images portrayed by the media. The global apparel industry has particularly suffered from consumers’ distrust due to unethical business practices and untrustworthy supply chain issues in the past decades. For example, Nike, a U.S.-based activewear company, has been accused of child labor practices on various occasions (Boje & Khan 2009). A recent fire killing over 100 workers in a garment factory in Bangladesh in 2012 is another example of apparel businesses’ untrustworthy practices.
In the buyer-seller relationship, trust is defined as the buyer’s (or the trustor’s) willingness to be vulnerable to a seller (or the trustee) based on the belief that the seller will conduct business transactions as expected by the buyer (Pavlou & Grefen 2004). The trust literature suggests that there are two dimensions of trust. One is credibility, which is defined as “the buyer’s belief that a seller is competent, honest, and reliable, and will fulfill contractual requirements” (Dimoka 2010, p. 375). The other is benevolence, which is defined as “the buyer’s belief that a seller has altruistic motives, is genuinely concerned with the buyer, and will act in a goodwill manner” (Dimoka 2010, p. 375).
On the opposite note, distrust is defined as “the buyer’s unwillingness to be vulnerable to a seller on the basis that the seller will be inept, exhibit reckless behavior, violate obligations, not care about the buyer’s welfare, act against the buyer’s interests, even intend to harm the buyer” (Dimoka 2010, p. 376). Distrust, too, is found to have two distinct dimensions—discredibility and malevolence (Dimoka 2010). Discredibility refers to “the trustor’s assessment of the potential of loss due to the trustees’ incompetence, dishonesty, and unreliability,” while malevolence refers to “the trustor’s fear that the trustee will not act in his or her best interests” (Dimoka 2010, p. 378). Particularly, distrust due to malevolence indicates a concern that the trustee will engage in a harmful behavior with ill intention (Pavlou & Dimoka 2006).
What is interesting here is that consumers may be affected by firms’ benevolent or malevolent activities than credible or discredible activities. Credibility is related to contractual obligations; therefore, it is expected to be established between any legitimate firms and consumers. Many firms claim they are credible, so it is difficult for consumers to recognize which one is more credible than others. However, firms’ benevolent or malevolent activities are thought to arouse humans’ emotional responses; benevolence in particular is known to be the most influential form of trust (Lewicki & Bunker 1995). Yet, the different impact that benevolence and malevolence may have on consumers’ perceived trust and purchase intention is little explored. Therefore, this study examined the impact of benevolent and malevolent apparel business practices on consumers’ heart rates and perceived trust. The difference in strengths of such impact between benevolent and malevolent practices was also evaluated. In the psychophysiology literaturea, when humans are exposed to emotionally arousing stimuli, such as malevolence in this study, they are believed to respond with a certain set of physiological reactions, including heart rate deceleration. Therefore, by examining both physiological and psychometric data, the findings were expected to help provide deep insights into the role of benevolence and malevolence in consumers’ purchase intentions.
Benevolence vs. Malevolence
Benevolence or malevolence is one of the key dimensions of trust or distrust. Benevolence is concerned with commitment and intentions of the trustee’s good will; therefore, the trustor’s emotional assessment of the trustee’s positive behavior takes place (Dimoka 2010). Benevolence is different from credibility, which is believed to be associated with cognitive assessment of contracts, laws, and structural assurances (Williamson 1985). On the opposite note, malevolence is associated with the trustor’s emotional assessment of the trustee’s negative and/or harmful behavior. Malevolence is different from discredibility, which deals with the trustor’s cognitive assessment of the potential loss through the trustee’s incompetence and unreliability.
Although both benevolence (or malevolence) and credibility (or discredibility) are significant factors of trust (or distrust), the impact of benevolence is found to be much greater on trust than that of credibility (Pavlou & Dimoka 2006). On the same note, malevolence affects distrust to a great degree than discredibility does (Lewicki & Bunker 1995; Pavlou & Dimoka 2006). In this light, for firms to enhance positive trusting relationships with consumers, reducing or eliminating distrust is as important as enhancing trust. Trust enhancement is expected to increase positive expectations about the firm’s beneficial conduct, and reduction of distrust is to reduce negative expectations about the firm’s harmful conduct (Kahneman & Tversky 1979). More specifically, Pavlou and Dimoka (2006) found that when consumers were faced with messages regarding a company’s benevolent activities, they believed that the company was less likely to engage in opportunistic behavior and therefore formed trust toward that company. In contrast, the evidence of opportunistic or malevolent behavior may lead consumers to believe that the company is highly likely to damage its reputation. This could result in reducing trust toward that company. The study therefore hypothesized:
H1: Benevolent messages about firm practices generate more positive perceived trust than malevolent messages do.
Physiological responses to malevolence/benevolence
The relationships between malevolent/benevolent messages and perceived trust/distrust can also be explored through the perspective of psychophysiology. Lang’s (2000) limited capacity model of motivated mediated message processing (LC4MP) theory explains the relationships between human physiology and psychology. The foundational premises of the LC4MP is that humans have a limited amount of cognitive resources, which they strategically allocate to complete the mental tasks involved in perceiving, comprehending, and remembering information they encounter. Thus, when humans are exposed to new stimuli or messages, the cognitive system automatically selects information to be encoded into working memory and then stored in long-term memory.
LC4MP argues that one of the automatic cognitive selection mechanisms for information encoding, storage, and retrieval is the orienting response, or OR (Lang 2000). OR refers to humans’ automatic physiological and behavioral reactions that occur in response to novel stimuli, or the “what-is-it?” response (Stern et al. 2001, p. 57). When an OR occurs, the viewer orients his or her sensory receptors toward the stimulus that caused the response. This orienting response results in an organized set of physiological responses as well as behavioral responses (Lynn 1966). One type of physiological response to a novel stimulus, an essential component of the orienting response, is heart rate deceleration (Bolls et al. 2001; Leshner et al. 2009).
LC4MP also suggests that emotional content in messages also automatically activate two fundamental motivational subsystems, the appetitive and the aversive (Berntson & Cacioppo 2000). A major goal of the appetitive system is information intake, whereas that of the aversive system is protection. The appetitive system is more active than the aversive system when stimuli cause low to moderate arousal, a physiological and psychological state of being awake or activated to stimuli (Stern et al. 2001). In this light, when humans are exposed to negatively arousing stimuli, the aversive system becomes activated, leading the body and mind to allocate more cognitive resources to encode information about the negative stimuli. When the stimulus is aversive, the individual may shift cognitive resources among encoding, storage, and retrieval in order to engage in an appropriate defensive response to protect him or herself (Lang 2006). Thus, highly emotional and/or negative messages lead to a higher level of cognitive resources allocated to information processing (Leshner et al. 2009), and, consequently, higher heart-rate deceleration.
In the context of trust and distrust in firm-consumer relationship, distrustful information on firms are known to be more important for consumers’ perceived trust and buying behavior as they tend to place more weight on negative information than the positive of a similar magnitude (Ito et al. 1998). From the physiological perspective, Galletta and his colleagues (1995) found that distrustful information has a stronger effect on consumers’ brain activities than trustful information due to the strong “emotional component” of its neural correlates. From the credibility and benevolence perspective, Dimoka (2010) found that the human brain’s limbic system, typically associated with humans’ emotions, was active when consumers were exposed to a company’s benevolent and/or malevolent business activities. Therefore, malevolence-related messages are thought to active the social brain, the anterior paracingulate cortex, causing an orienting response with a greater degree of cognitive resources allocated to encoding them than benevolent messages (Dimoka 2010). Consequently, the study hypothesized:
H2: Participants will experience greater heart rate deceleration during exposure to messages about a firm’s malevolent business practices than during exposure to messages about its benevolent business practices would.
Trust and purchase intention
Finally, the trust literature shows that consumers’ perceived trust in a firm would increase consumers’ future purchase intention. Bhattacherjee (2002) conceptualized trust as the consumer’s belief in the firm’s practices, and then showed that trust directly influences purchase intention. Li and Miniard (2006) concluded that consumers tend to have a higher purchase intention when they can trust a firm than when they cannot, and Büttner and Göritz (2008) also showed that firms’ trustworthiness promotes consumers’ purchase intention even in an online retail setting. That is, the more trustworthy a firm is, the more likely consumers would intend to purchase its products. However, what is unknown is whether perceived trust formed through benevolence or malevolence may have different impact on consumers’ purchase intention. Therefore, the study hypothesized,
H3: The perceived trust formed through a firm’s benevolent messages would have different impact on consumers’ purchase intention than that formed through malevolent massages.