Meltem Baturay and Sacip Toker conducted research on the building of trust in offline settings and online settings (pdf). They measured the level of trust between students cooperating offline and online, both at the beginning and at the end of the same university course. Their conclusions are interesting: while initial trust among students working together in real life was higher, the level of trust went down over the semester. The level of trust among those cooperating online, on the other hand, was low at the beginning but higher at the end of the semester: higher when compared to the start of the semester and when compared to the level of trust at the beginning and at the end of the semester for the offline group.
The study does not really give an explanation for its outcomes. It does note: “trust levels were strongly affected by the benevolence/integrity, but not by the ability of other group members”.
While this is only one imperfect study, its results do not reject our hypotheses so far. The hypothesis concerning the importance of diminishing anxiety seems especially in line with the outcomes. From it, one can derive that people feel safe offline at the beginning of working together, but that offline contact with others is not needed to keep on feeling safe; offline contact rather poses a potential threat. Over time, we are bound to find out that others with whom we cooperate in the offline realm do not act entirely in line with our routines: hence our trust in them diminishes. Online, on the other hand, we feel less safe at the start of working together because of the alien character of the digital environment, but then, when it turns out that cooperation with others is achievable, we feel a sense of relief: hence our trust in others grows.
The hypothesis that warm communication is important to build trust seems in line with the study’s statement that trust levels were strongly affected by “the benevolence/integrity”. And the hypothesis that participants online need to see the progress they are making seems to be reflected in the research since it measured trust levels at the beginning and at the end of a concrete university course.