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The Psychology of Online Marketplace Trust and Scams


    As an online marketplace owner, one of your main goals should be building trust between users to ensure that they transact safely and honestly with each other.

    After all, without trust, no transactions, and with no transactions, no business!

    Scammers are one of the biggest threats to maintaining trust. We know that content moderation is key to detect and prevent fraud, however, to fully understand the role that content moderation plays in ensuring that your platform remains trustworthy, we need to better understand the concept of trust.

    Time and again intelligent people fall for online scams. What is it that makes us believe in too-good-to be true offers? How can online marketplaces reinforce or rebuild trust if it’s been broken? We spoke to behavioral psychologist and business consultant Sara Ingvarsson from Waldine Consulting, to find out more.

    Understanding trust in the context of online marketplaces

    Sara: “There is no consensus on the definition of trust within psychology. From my perspective trust is a feeling and a feeling can never really cause a behavior. Instead, previous experiences of the consequences of our actions can influence future behaviors. When we do things that have some valued consequence, it will make it more likely for us to engage in that behavior again in the future. As an effect of the consequences, we would probably experience positive feelings. The feelings are then how we explain our behavior in everyday language. Why did you do that? Because I felt trust. However, the more scientific explanation would be because my previous experience has shaped my behavior.”

    For instance, if you shop online without worrying about getting scammed, that is not scientifically speaking because you feel “trust”. It is because your previous experiences with shopping online hasn’t included negative encounters with scammers. In short, when you have bought things online in the past, you have experienced the expected outcome from that action ie, receiving the item or service you’ve paid for.

    “We learn through experiences,” explains Sara. “We look for patterns in behavior; over time, we recognize and label these patterns. “This also explains why so many of us feel confident using online marketplaces to trade with those we don’t know.” As Sara explains, “even if we haven´t interacted with that particular person we are trading with, we rely on similarities to other experiences of using online marketplaces.”

    “Most people are careful when dealing with strangers as they don’t know if they will live up to their word,” she says.  In order to trust a new person, we look for cues or signs that remind us of other people we have met in the past, that have been trustworthy. When noticing similarities, we use that as a base for deciding whether to trust the new person.”

    For instance, if our general experience dealing with people has taught us that people who use slang and crude words are not trustworthy, then we are also less likely to trust a person on an online marketplace if their ad is riddled with spelling mistakes and swear words.

    The difference between trust in the offline and online world

    “In theory there is no difference between building trust in the traditional vs. the digital world. The mind doesn’t really make a distinction between the two. If you want to build trust you need to make sure that the person who you want to trust you will have experienced those valued consequences when interacting with your company in any way. A good rule would be for you to ensure a positive correlation between what you say will happen and what actually happens – such as if I say that I’ll pay you, and then actually do it.” ” Sara says and continues:

    “However, there is a difference in how much experience we have of online interactions and real life interactions and as such in the pool of similarities we can draw on. Also, we have inherited some evolutionary traits for spotting trustworthy people in real life, but online a lot of the signs we try to decode in real life, such as facial expression, body language and to an extent, their tone of voice, aren’t there. In short, there’s a lack of traditional social cues; and there is no ‘survival of the fittest’ primal instinct that relates to buying into a scam online.”

    So how do online marketplace owners build interpersonal trust between strangers? It is a complex exercise, but one piece of the puzzle is to replace these visible social cues with something else our brains can relate to: portrait pictures and high-quality text (what defines quality will depend completely on the users’ expectations).

    Building trust through reviews and recommendations

    While emulation social queues is a step in the right direction, it might not be enough.

    According to research, just 19% of millennials (those aged 18-33) believe most people can be trusted, compared with 31% of Generation X’ers (34-50).

    These numbers could indicate that millennials, who have grown up with the Internet and as such have the higher familiarity with it, can pull from a broader pool of direct similarities and that those experiences have overwhelmingly  been bad (ie. They have had more encounters online to compare new interactions with, whereas X’ers might still to an extend compare to offline encounters where scams are less common.).

    To help counter the caution, reviews and recommendations are a powerful tool. If someone else has tested something and vouches for a positive experience, we are more inclined to believe that we will also have a good experience.

    But why do we trust the word of strangers, when we’ve just concluded that skepticism vs. strangers online is very high?

    “It is the power of many” says Sara “You might not trust the word of one stranger online, but when we see a pattern of many strangers agreeing in their reviews of something, then we are likely to trust it.”

    But this trust also heavily relies on previous experiences with reviews online If our experience is that most reviews are fake, bought or inaccurate for other reasons, then we will start losing faith in them.

    This is why sites relying on reviews need to be adamant in moderating them, ensuring that they are genuine and impartial.

    Why we fall for scams

    Now that we have established what trust is and how it is built, let’s have a look at one of the experiences that will most quickly deteriorate a user’s trust in an online marketplace: Getting scammed.

    But first of all, let us look at why we fall for “too good to be true” scams?

    “Human beings aren’t systematic when they gather information. As a species we make a lot of decisions based on hunches and feelings. This part of our flight and fight instinct, when you are facing a saber tiger, you do not have the time to conduct a full-scale risk assessment. And we sometimes apply the same to positive interactions simply to save time. Without this ability humans would never get anything done. But the drawback is that sometimes we make bad decisions when we don’t take time to gather facts and data. Our primal instinct to take quick decisions can be triggered by a number of factors – urgency, excitement, greed, uncertainty – and these are exactly the kind of things scammers play on.” Says Sara.

    “The differences between ‘uncertain’ and ‘certain’, ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ and ‘future’ and ‘immediate’ are easily blurred. For example; say we see and ad that says “iPhone 8 for sale. Get it now. Priced to sell quick, first come first serve”: this plays to ‘certain’ (The ad states you will get it now) ‘positive’ (The ad promises that you will get the iPhone) and ‘immediate’ (first come first serve and get it now). When we only see the benefits in a given situation, our rational brain is shutting down; giving in to the emotional side.

    “Scammers don’t leave room for rationality.” Explains Sara and continues:

    “Hindsight is a wonderful thing! Looking back, you can often see all the different negative signs, but these can hard to identify when you’re in the middle of a decision.”

    Once a user has fallen victim to a scam, it can have dire consequences for future conversion.

    Simply put, bad experiences break trust. From a behavioral standpoint, this happens when there’s inconsistency between what people say they’re going to do and what they actually do. And someone being scammed in an online marketplace is a classic example of that trust breakdown.

    Although a malicious individual may be solely responsible for a particular scam, often it’s hard for people to extrapolate their experience from the marketplace associated with the bad experience.

    “We expect brands to uphold social playing rules too,” Sara explains. “Even though a company hasn’t promised anything, we project expectations onto them, so when someone’s the victim of fraud they often feel that the platform has failed them and broken its brand promise as a result.”

    The snowball effect of broken trust

    This is how a negative reputation can begin. Even a single incident can have an accumulative effect. When something bad happens to us, we begin to notice other negative traits that corroborate our stance: for example, if a person has yelled at you in the past, you’re more likely to feel they’re yelling whenever their tone of voice changes; something you wouldn’t even notice in other people.

    “When people have a negative impression of a person, or a brand for that matter, it’s often the result of something known as ‘selective perception’ – when in this frame of mind you will often only notice the things that support the perception you have already formed, explains Sara.

    If a user has been scammed on a marketplace, they are as such much more likely to spot scams or even see low quality content and assume that it is fraudulent.

    “It’s a tough stigma to overcome and there’s really no other way to tackle it than to do better next time. And the time after that. One bad experience needs about 10 good ones to balance it out.” says Sara.

    Countering a negative perception, can be tackled in many ways. It really depends on the nature of the trust breakdown – and the scale of it. One thing that is very important though, is that changes need to be visible. For an online marketplace, this could be through a clear statement about taking a stand against fraud or it could be a full-fledged rebrand. Regardless of how the rebuilding of trust is approached, it has to be crystal clear from a customer point of view that all actions and communication are genuine. Otherwise the relationship will be further damaged.

    “Reassurance and open communication can go a long way,” says Sara. “I work with organizational development and in a crisis situation you’ll see lot of managers and business leaders highlight how they’re working on making changes. It’s all about reiterating the ways in which things will run smoother from now on. That really helps to rebuild trust”

    Forget trust! Focus on the behaviors you want your users to display

    User trust is one of those goals that everyone is striving for, but few companies actually fully achieve. And now you might understand why. Trust is such a complex concept because it is hard to define and often miss-denominated.

    Even when you understand that the trust we are striving for is actually, perhaps better termed “user confidence” (that users believe that they will experience the expected outcome, when they utilize your site), it is still hard to build and even harder to maintain.

    “When it comes to trust online, the companies need to define for themselves what kind of behaviors they would want their users to display and then try to make sure that they get positive experiences when they do those things on their website.” -concludes Sara

    In short, if you want people to transact with each other on your site fearlessly, then make sure that they always have positive experiences when doing so. Some may call that building trust, some may call it increasing user confidence, but in the end you can call that running a successful marketplace!

    Psychologist Sara Ingvarsson

    Sara Ingvarsson

    Sara Ingvarsson is a licensed psychologist and a certified business consultant in the area of Organizational Behavior management.

    She runs her own consulting company, Waldine Consulting and primarily works with behavior change projects within organizations.

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