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Trusting an Online Mediator: It May be Easier than You Think

by Susan Nauss Exon

September 2019

Susan Nauss Exon
Trustworthiness is a notable mediator trait. If a mediator is able to exude trustworthiness through his or her ability to develop rapport with mediation participants, then the participants will trust the mediator enough to be candid, sharing valuable information that a mediator may use to foster an amicable resolution.

A recent study shows that within the context of a mediation simulation conducted as part of online dispute resolution (ODR), mediation participants trusted their mediator to virtually the same degree whether they engaged in face-to-face mediation or virtually using a video-collaborated environment known as telepresence. Data was analyzed from a small-scale experimental study (N=59), and the research project concluded that there was no statistically significant difference in the extent to which participants trusted a mediator in all contexts and factors—communication mode (face-to-face or telepresence); age; gender; educational level; familiarity with and use of a video-collaborated environment such as Skype, FaceTime or a similar platform; and an individual’s predisposition to trust. Similar results applied to perceptions of the mediator’s trustworthiness.

Trust and Trustworthiness

Interpersonal trust is a social concept because it relies on human interaction; it involves an individual’s reliance on another to fulfill a promise. Because the trustor lacks control over his counterpart, he becomes vulnerable by assuming a risk that his counterpart will fulfill a promised action or duty. Feelings of trust are affected by perceptions of satisfaction or attraction, interpersonal visual cues such as smiling, and the trustee’s ability, integrity, and benevolence. Reputation and past experiences also influence feelings of trust.

Whereas trust signifies the trustor’s willingness to rely on another, trustworthiness includes a set of beliefs about the trustee that precedes the trustor’s willingness. Trustworthiness, therefore, is a precursor to trust. According to Roger Mayer, trustworthiness is characterized by one’s ability (level of competence), benevolence (ability to do good for another), and integrity (capacity to imply morality and credibility).

A few studies exist that have examined trust in the context of text-based platforms and videoconferencing. To date, I have not found scholarship involving trust-building techniques in a video-collaborated environment known as telepresence, enhancing the importance of this empirical research study.

Telepresence

Telepresence is the extent to which one feels present by means of a communication platform rather than location in an immediate physical environment. This sense of presence is enhanced by highly sensitive microphones and special cameras that automatically zoom in and pan the room, generating vivid and interactive dimensions. A telepresence platform helps participants track the flow of a conversation better than videoconferencing because the cameras allow participants to have direct eye contact since they do not have to look into a computer-mounted camera as with videoconferencing. Participants, therefore, feel verbal and social cues happening real time, yielding a good communication flow akin to an in-person experience.

The Project

The purpose of this project was to examine the extent to which parties trusted a mediator when communicating by telepresence. Students volunteered as disputants in a simulated mediation. In each simulation, one disputant interacted with the mediator in a face-to-face context and the other disputant communicated with the mediator via telepresence.

The measures of main variables were based on two separate questionnaires. Prior to the mediation simulation, participants participated in a survey of questions to test their predisposition to trust others based on Julian Rotter’s scale for the measurement of interpersonal trust. (Rotter). After the simulation, participants answered twenty-four survey questions based on research regarding trust and trustworthiness. Among the post-mediation questions, two direct outcome measures were examined: trust in the mediator and trustworthiness of the mediator. Thus, some questions related to the participant’s personal interaction with the mediator and others related to their personal perceptions about the mediator. In addition to the mode of communication, other variables that were measured included gender, age, educational attainment, and frequency of involvement with video collaborated communications such as Skype, FaceTime or a similar platform.

Of the 59 recorded survey responses, 50 participants indicated that they strongly agreed with statements that “I could trust the mediator” and “The mediator was trustworthy,” whereas 9 participants mildly agreed with each statement. The final result illustrates that all variable factors, and specifically the mode of communication—face-to-face or telepresence—did not affect study participants’ ability to trust the mediator and perceptions that the mediator was trustworthy. Thus, whether participants communicated with the mediator through telepresence or face-to-face, they were equally likely to trust the mediator and perceive the mediator as trustworthy. The final result is particularly noteworthy since almost two-thirds of the participants showed a predisposition to distrust rather than trust prior to engaging in the mediation simulation.

Even though the variation was minimal, my co-author, Dr. Soomi Lee, and I examined the outcome variation, focusing on the 50 participants who strongly agreed and the 9 participants who mildly agreed that they trusted the mediator and felt that he was trustworthy. Our statistical analysis was limited due to minimal variation in the outcome variables, trust and trustworthiness. For example, a logistic regression analysis can be ideal, but difficult to conduct. We, therefore, focused on a series of t tests and Analysis of Variance tests. A detailed explanation of the factors that affect the degree of trust and trustworthiness as well as our analysis can be found in the forthcoming publication referenced at the end of this article.

Conclusion

Our findings are consistent with earlier research that illustrates the richness of communication channels affect one’s ability to trust. To my knowledge, the current project is the first empirical research involving trust of a mediator in a video-collaborated platform known as telepresence. One premise for the results could be the visual clarity that telepresence provides such that it mirrors face-to-face communication.

Empirical research now exists, which establishes that the richness of an electronic communication medium may stimulate levels of trust and perceptions of trustworthiness similarly to a face-to-face environment. This finding is significant, as our world becomes smaller, forcing disputants in distant locations to find efficient, economical forms of ODR.

 

This article is a summary of a more extensive law review article: Exon, Susan Nauss and Lee, Soomi, Building Trust Online: The Realities of Telepresence for Mediators Engaged in Online Dispute Resolution (February 3, 2019). Volume 49, Number 1, Stetson Law Review. Available at SSRN: https:ssrn.com/abstract=3403279.

 

Susan Nauss Exon is a Professor of Law at the University of La Verne College of Law, 320 East D Street, Ontario, CA, USA, where she teaches mediation, negotiation, civil procedure and related topics. She also mediates and arbitrates on several panels, including the California Arbitration and Mediation Services (CAMS). 



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