The proposed research will improve theoretical understanding of trust in risk communication by integrating considerations of attitude strength into the conceptualization and measurement of trust. While authorities managing environmental risk seek to earn trust from the public, they also want such trust to be strong. That is, they want trust bestowed upon them to last over time, endure bad news cycles, and positively influence people's thinking and behavior. Research in risk communication, however, rarely has focused on how these strength-related qualities of trust are gained or lost. Little is known about how these qualities can be measured and tested in statistical models. The lack of attention in this area is likely due to how the field has conceptualized trust, usually as a construct that inherently takes minimal cognitive effort, allowing people to make decisions about environmental risk without having to engage in complex calculations. The current project synthesizes theories and findings from multiple disciplines to take an alternative approach. The literature of attitude strength suggests that attitudes crystallized through rich knowledge and elaboration will exhibit consequences indicative of strong attitudes: they will persist over time, resist counter-persuasive messages, and strongly affect further information processing and behavior. To argue that trust is inherently based on effortless processing implies that trust cannot exhibit these strength-related consequences. Instead of dismissing the possibility of trust based on cognitively effortful processes, this research examines how communication processes can increase knowledge and elaboration about risk managers which, in turn, can yield stronger forms of trust.

This new research propose a theoretical model to study attitude strength attributes of trust in risk communication. According to this model, two attitude-strength attributes (knowledge, elaboration) mediate the relationship between three communication process antecedents (direct interaction, media usage, and discussion with others) and four attitude strength consequences (persistence, resistance, impact on information processing, impact on behavior). To empirically test this alternative model of trust, the projects develops a two-wave online survey using a sample from a local community where there is a salient risk management issue and the three communicative processes can be reasonably observed. Residents within the area to be affected by an environmentally hazardous project will be invited to the online survey via post mail. Respondents will report their communication experiences with, and amount of knowledge and elaboration about a local environmental agency making decisions about the project. They will also rate their level of trust toward the agency in both waves of the survey, allowing measurement of the persistence of trust.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
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Robert E. O'Connor
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Cornell University
United States
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