Between expectation and behavioral intent: a model of trust

Fuan Li


In recent years trust has drawn a great deal of attention from both business practitioners and scholars. Few constructs have been defined in so many different ways resulting in much confusion. Numerous studies have looked at interpersonal trust, organizational trust, or trust in exchange relationships, but the underlying meaning of trust seems to remain elusive. This research attempts to improve our understanding of the nature of trust through an examination of various perspectives and by presenting an integrated model of the construct. To account for the differences among these diverse perspectives, the model portrays trust as a decision to place one’s confidence in others. As a central construct, trust is preceded by expectations and followed by behavioral intent and ultimately by actions. Expectations, as an antecedent of trust, are conceived to be a function of perceived risk, anticipations of the outcomes associated with a specific situation, and perceived trustworthiness of the party involved.


Trust is a central issue in many active areas of business research, including teamwork, leadership, organizational relations, buyer-seller relationships, strategic alliances, and organizational governance. Drawing on research findings in other social sciences such as economics, psychology, and sociology, researchers in business generally agree that trust is critical to organizational governance (Powell, 1996), intra- and inter-organization relationships, and effective, long lasting business relations (Morgan & Hunt, 1994; Sirdeshmukh, Singh & Sabol, 2002). As a fundamental social force (Lewis & Weigert, 1985), trust provides an important mechanism for control (Nooteboom, Berger & Noorderhaven, 1997), enables cooperative behavior (Gambetta, 1988), promotes adaptive organizational forms in network relations (Miles & Snow, 1992), decreases transaction costs (Meyerson, Weick & Kramer 1996), and facilitates and enhances strategic partnerships (Shapiro, Sheppard & Cheraskin, 1992).

Despite great efforts made by scholars, our understanding of trust remains elusive and little consensus has been achieved among scholars with regard to the nature of trust. Trust has been conceptualized in various ways. Some scholars define trust “in terms of confident positive expectations regarding another’s conduct” (Lewicki & Bies, 1998, p. 439). To them, Trust is “a particular level of the subjective probability with which an agent assesses that another agent or group of agents will perform a particular action” (Gambetta, 1988, p. 217). Or it is “an expectancy held by an individual or a group that the word, promise, verbal or written statement of another individual or group can be relied on” (Rotter, 1967, p. 651).

Other scholars define trust in terms of behavioral intent; trust is viewed as “a willingness to rely on an exchange partner in whom one has confidence” (Moorman, Deshpande & Zaltman, 1993, p. 82). Consequently, trust is said to exist “to the extent to which a person is confident in, and willing to act on the basis of, the words, actions, and decisions of another” (McAllister, 1995, p.25).

In addition, some scholars view trust in terms of one’s perception or feeling of the party to be trusted. For example, Tyler & Degoey (1996, p.335) “define trust in terms of feelings that an authority made a good-faith effort and treated the parties involved in the conflict fairly.” For those, perceived trustworthiness of the trustee is central to trust.

Some scholars try to incorporate different perspectives as well as situational characteristics in conceptualizing trust. A widely cited definition of trust states, “An individual may be said to have trust in the occurrence of an event if he expects its occurrence and his expectations lead to behavior which he perceives to have greater negative consequences if the expectation is not confirmed than positive motivational consequences if it is confirmed” (Deutsch, 1958, p. 266).

The great variety of conceptualization of trust cries for further efforts in clarifying this important construct. In this paper we attempt to discuss diverse approaches and perspective in defining trust, and propose an integrative model of trust. Specifically, we first review various perspectives and levels of analysis found in the literature examining the reasons for the disparities in the definitions. For each reason we establish our position, thus laying the groundwork for our model. The model considers trust as a central construct preceded by expectations and followed by behavioral intent and action


The different definitions of trust exist for several reasons. First, trust can be examined at multiple levels of analysis. Understandably, different forms of trust may exist at different levels. It can be analyzed at individual, group (team), organizational, inter-organizational, or societal levels. Significant differences in the nature of the construct exist between the levels. For example, at the extremes interpersonal trust is dyadic in nature while societal trust is holistic (Powell & Heriot, 2000). We choose to examine trust at the individual level. This choice is based on the notion that the most basic level of trust is the dyad between an individual and another party. Trust at other levels of analysis represent aggregations of individual level trust and cannot exist without individual trust.

The second reason is that various research perspectives can be assumed within each level of analysis. It has long been recognized that disciplinary disparities may entail divergent assumptions in treating trust. For instance, economists are committed to agency theory (Williamson, 1993), therefore tend to view trust as calculated probability of an event. In psychology trust is commonly considered as a personal trait or a psychological state such as attitudes or tendency to take risk (Rotter, 1967). Sociologists often regard trust as a social force (Luhmann, 1979), an institutional phenomenon (individuals’ trust in institutions or trust between institutions), or socially embedded properties of relationships among people (Granovetter, 1985; Zucker, 1986). Social psychologists focus on the interpersonal transactions between individuals at both personal and/or group levels regarding trust as the expectation of the other party in a transaction and the risks associated with assuming and acting on such expectations (Deutsch, 1960). We choose to view trust at the individual level, therefore we adopt the psychologist’s perspective that trust is a psychological state.

The third reason is that trust is a multidimensional construct. To have trust is to have confidence that the other person is competent in playing her assumed role, or benevolent in terms of behavioral motives. It could indicate one’s confidence in the person’s behavior: what is expected to happen. It may also imply the person is a reliable or dependable person. Importantly, trust in a person could have various meanings simultaneously or exist in terms of one aspect but not in terms of another dimension. Trust in a mother’s benevolence may not have anything to do with her competence to perform a particular task to help. We can have complete trust in a bank clerk in her competence in role performance without any knowledge of her or any attention paid to the nature of her intention. A model of trust must be flexible or comprehensive enough to reflect the multidimensional nature of trust.

A final reason for the wide variety of definitions of trust is that trust can be built on a variety of bases. For instance, past interactions and the knowledge/familiarity resulting for repeated interactions are essential for interpersonal trust. People do not place their trust in a stranger very often. However, knowledge may not be so critical for role-based trust or societal trust. We don’t have to know a service provider well before we initiate a business transaction. We have confidence in our legal system without knowledge of the parties involved. Those various bases may result in different forms of trust, such as deterrence-based trust, knowledge-based trust, identification-based trust (Shapiro, Sheppard & Cheraskin, 1992), institution-based trust (Shapiro, 1987) calculus-based trust (Lewicki & Bunker, 1995), and identity-based trust (Kramer, Brewer & Hanna, 1996). A model of trust must be able to accommodate the variety of bases of trust.


On the basis of extensive literature review, we propose trust is a relational construct, which reflects one’s psychological state and involves conscious decision or choice.


Despite divergence in particular conceptualizations, most authors agree that, whatever else its essential features, trust is fundamentally a psychological state. Recall the common usage of the word “trust.” When we say that we have trust in someone or something, we refer to a psychological state of ours that may involve cognitive, affective, and behavioral components according to the understanding of trust furnished by the current literature.

As we discussed above, many theorists conceive trust as expectancy about other people and their behavior; thus, it is primarily viewed as cognition by nature. Barber (1983) characterized trust as a set of “socially learned and socially confirmed expectations that people have of each other, of the organizations and institutions in which they live, and of the natural and moral social orders that set the fundamental understandings for their lives” (p.164-65).

Although acknowledging the importance of cognitive correlates of trust, other researchers also regard trust as having affective and motivational components (McAllister, 1995; Lewis & Weigert, 1985). The affective component embodies aspects of the “world of cultural meanings, emotional responses, and social relations … one not only thinks trust, but feels trust,” (Fine & Holyfield, 1996, p 25).


Trust entails perceived vulnerability that is derived from one’s uncertainty regarding the motives, intentions, and prospective actions of others (Kramer et al., 1996). Without the involvement of others trust would not come into play. A number of researchers have suggested that an adequate theory of trust must incorporate systematically the social and relational dimensions of trust (Mayer et al. 1995, McAllister, 1995, Tyler & Kramer, 1996). We adopt this relational view of trust. We agree with Kramer et al. (1996), research on trust should place emphasis on social rather than purely instrumental motives driving trust behavior, including consideration of how actors’ self-presentational concerns and identity-related needs and motives influence trust-related cognition and choice. In addition we argue that trust comes into play when and only when relationships with others are involved. That is the relationship itself should be the focus when it comes to studying trust, not the particular discrete transaction, whether it be economic or social.


Think of how we use the word “trust” again. Often time, we use the word as a verb rather than a noun; thus, we refer to something we do that involves a decision or choice among potential alternative course of actions. You may or may not buy a used car that may turn out to be a lemon. You may or may not hire a baby-sitter for the evening and leave him or her unsupervised. You may or may not agree to be operated on by a doctor with whom you are least familiar. When we choose to “trust” or “not trust” in a person or an organization, we are making a choice, a decision and in most cases the choice manifests itself and can be observed.

Viewing trust as choice behavior has its support in the extant literature. For example, many researchers argue for the usefulness of conceptualizing trust in terms of individuals’ choice behavior (Kreps, 1990; Miller, 1992; March, 1994). An advantage of conceptualizing trust in terms of choice is that decisions often involve observable behaviors. In fact viewing trust as rational choice has become the dominant perspective in the economic and sociological literature. As Williamson (1993) argues, decisions about trust are similar to other forms of risky choice; individuals are presumed to be motivated to make rational, efficient choices (i.e. to maximize expected gains or minimize expected losses from their transactions). The observable behaviors resulting from these choices enable those involved in these lines of research to empirically test their theories.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (1989), trust can be defined as “confidence in or reliance on some quality or attribute of a person or thing, or the truth of a statement.” The definition apparently direct us to the critical role of confidence in trusting behavior, which leads us to define trust as a decision/choice of placing our confidence. That is, to trust or not to trust refers to whether or not to put our confidence in other persons, or groups, or institutions. Defied this way, trust is a conscientious choice, a decision, regardless of whether it is calculative or relational in nature.

We propose a model of trust (figure 1) which considers trust as a multi-dimensional psychological construct with a variety of bases. Trust is preceded by expectations, which in turn are a function of perceived risk, anticipations of the outcomes associated with a specific situation, and perceived trustworthiness of the party involved. Trust is followed by behavioral intent and ultimately by actions.


Perceived Risk

The model begins with risk. Previous research suggests that risk is a condition for trust to exist. Luhmann (1979) maintains, trust is about risk, and risk is about the choice to expose oneself to a situation where the possible damage may be greater than the advantage that is sought. This stipulation is crucial because, without it, whatever risks one faces are within the acceptable limits of rational choice, and trust plays no part in the decision to proceed. Deutsch (1960) suggests that a decision to trust is made in situations characterized by a course of future action that is ambiguous, outcomes that depend on the behavior of others, and greater consequences of a harmful event than of a beneficial event. More recent conceptualizations of trust holds that without a situation in which the possible damage may be greater than the advantage one seeks, it would simply be a matter of rational calculation where the risks remain within acceptable limits. “Without vulnerability, trust is unnecessary because outcomes are inconsequential for the trustor” (Moorman, et al. 1992, p 82.)

Apparently, perceived risk will have significant impact on the choice of whether to trust or not to trust. This impact is mediated by expectancy. Specifically, when perceived risk is high, or the ambiguity of the situation involved is high, one’s expectation of the other’s future behavior or the occurrence of a future event become less certain, which probably lead to low expectancy for the positive outcomes. In contrast, when faced a less ambiguous situation, one may have higher expectancy of positive outcome.

Although risk is important to trust, willingness to take a risk may not be an antecedent of trust. Trust will typically be relevant when at least one party is free to disappoint the other, free enough to avoid a risky relationship, and constrained enough to consider that relationship an attractive option. However, trust is “an attitude” that allows for risk-taking decision. Without trust, risk is avoided (Meyerson, et al. 1996). That is, taking risk can be a result of trust, but not a determinant of trust. One can choose to not trust to avoid perceived risk. This is especially true when the perceived risk does not involve the indeterminacy arising from not having foreknowledge of another’s actions.

In short, risk is relevant to trust, but trust itself is not the willingness to take risk. In contrast, trust serves the purpose of reducing uncertainty and facilitating decision making in a risky situation. Individuals make a trusting choice when they confront an ambiguous choice situation in which the negative consequences are stronger than the positive consequences, but individual believes that the probability of the positive consequences outweighs the probability of the negative ones.

Calculated Probability

The dominant view of trust in economics conceives trust as a calculated probability, given the assumption that each party to the exchange aims to maximize self-interest (gain). Gambetta (1988) argues, trust is a particular level of the subjective probability with which an agent assesses that another agent will perform a particular action, both before he can monitor such action and in a context in which it affects his own action (p. 217). Deutsch (1973) proposed that decisions to act trustingly could be accounted for by understanding the relative strengths of positive and negative motivational consequences (outcomes) that would derive from choices in an ambiguous situation and the subjective probabilities that those consequences would actually occur. Similarly, Williamson points out, “At this level trust is an ongoing, market-oriented, economic calculation whose value is derived by comparing the outcomes resulting from creating and sustaining the relationship to the costs of maintaining or severing it.” This transactional view of trust is based on concepts used to describe the economic behavior of actors in a firm (Williamson, 1975). The transactional view suggests that trust, precisely calculus-based trust, may be derived by determining benefits and costs to be derived from 1) staying in the relationship; and 2) cheating on the relationship.

Although trust should not be conceived as solely transactional, calculated probability about a future event or others’ behavior is essential for our expectation. Our expectations about others depend on how we perceive the other party. If the perceived probability of the other’s keeping a promise is high, we expect a positive outcome. Otherwise, it is less likely that we will hold high expectation of the positive future event. Therefore, the calculated probability will have direct impact on expectation.


Trustworthiness has been widely viewed as an antecedent of trust. It refers to the characteristics of the trustee, including perceived role performance competence, reliability, benevolent intention, and so on. It is worth noting that trustworthiness is different from trust. Trustworthiness concerns the characteristics of trustee and perceived trustworthiness is a belief about the trustee. In contrast, trust is trustor’s characteristics and it may or may not be based on his/her perception of the trustee. However, the perceived trustworthiness of trustee influences one’s expectations regarding the trustee. For example, if a person is perceived as competent in doing her job, it is likely we would expect her to do a job well. Similarly, if she is perceived as caring and concerned for our welfare, we would expect benevolent behavior from her.

An important difference between perceived trustworthiness and other determinants of expectations lie in the fact that perceived trustworthiness relies on one’s knowledge of the person to be trusted. In other words, trust that is based on expectations determined by perceived trustworthiness is knowledge-based trust. Trust established as such is more likely to be attitudinal than situational. Furthermore, perceived trustworthiness will have impact on one’s expectation across various situations.


Expectation is a belief about what is to happen. Many definitions, especially those that focus on future events, view trust as expectation of the trustee’s future behavior. Lewicki and Bunker (1995) define trust as a state involving confident positive expectations about another’s motives regarding oneself in situations of risk. These expectations may be based on the rewards or punishments that guide the others’ behavior (i.e., calculus-based trust), the predictability of the other’s behaviors (i.e., knowledge-based trust), or a full internalization of the other’s desires and intentions (i.e., identification-based trust). Unlike perceived trustworthiness, expectation is a cognition of the trustor although it may be determined by perceived trustworthiness of the trustee. Frequently, researchers define trust as expectation as we discussed previously. However, in the model we view expectations as an antecedent of trust because we believe trust is more than just a cognitive expectancy. Many scholars have argued that a behavioral dimension is essential for trust, in that one party does not trust another until a personal relationship is established (Barber, 1983). Expectation that the trustee will behave in a benevolent manner, or that the trustee will perform her role in a competent manner will certainly contribute to one’s trust. However, trust involves behavioral component and is not merely judgment or an expectation of the other party’s future behavior. For example, Lewis and Weigert (1985) argue that trust is not mere predictability of the other’s behavior, but confidence in the face of risk. According to Deutsch (1960), trust exists when resulting behavior of the trusting person demonstrates reliance on this uncertain information.

Behavioral intent and actions

The choice of placing one’s confidence in another will affect one’s behavioral intentions. When we have confidence in a salesperson, our purchase intention of a used car may become higher, and consequently we may be more likely to a buyer of a used car from this particular salesman. In contrast, when we mistrust a salesperson, we may refrain ourselves from making a purchases demonstrating a low tendency to make a purchase.

In a more general level, as we argued previously, having trust in a party will enhance our willingness to take risk. When trust is absent, risk is avoided. In addition, trust has been shown to facilitate cooperation as well as other trusting behavior (Gambetta, 1988; Deutsch 1960). Thus, in the model presented above, behavioral intent and actions are viewed as being determined by trust.


To sum up, we regard trust as a behavioral construct; to trust is to place one’s confidence in the other party in a relationship. Trust is preceded by cone’s expectation of a future event, especially of how another party will behave. Perceived trustworthiness of the party, risk and calculated probability may affect one’s expectation that in turn can determine one’s choice of whether to trust or not to trust. Such a decision or choice may lead to both instrumental and psychological outcomes as consequences of trust, including highly social and emotional outcomes. The model presented here describes the relationships among these key constructs that frequently appear in the current literature. By differentiating expectation and behavioral intention (willingness to take risk) form trust itself, this model attempts to clarify the confusions regarding the nature of trust. In addition, we expect our preliminary work will facilitate research on trust building process as well as on impacts trust may have on cooperative and trusting behavior.


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Fuan Li, William Paterson University

Stephen C. Betts, William Paterson University

COPYRIGHT 2004 The DreamCatchers Group, LLC

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning

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