This study examined a knowledge-centered theory of institutional trust development. In the context of trust in water regulatory institutions, the moderating impact of knowledge was tested to determine if there were longitudinal changes in the bases of institutional trust as a function of increases in knowledge about a target institution. We hypothesized that as people learn about an institution with which they were previously unfamiliar, they begin to form more nuanced perceptions, distinguishing the new institution from other institutions and relying less upon their generalized trust to estimate their trust in that institution. Prior to having specific, differential information about a new institution, we expected institutional trust to be a function of generalized trust variables such as dispositional trust and trust in government. The longitudinal experiment involved 185 college students randomly assigned to one of three information conditions. Every 3 months for 15 months, participants read information about water regulatory institutions or a control institution. At each time point, participants reported their trust in and perceptions of the trust-and distrust-worthiness of the water regulatory institutions. Participants also completed measures of knowledge of water regulatory institutions, dispositional trust, and governmental trust. Our manipulation check indicated that, as expected, those in the experimental group increased in subjective knowledge of water regulatory institutions to a greater extent than those in the control condition. Consistent with our hypotheses, there was some evidence that, compared to the control group, the experimental group relied less on their general trust in government as a basis for their trust in water regulatory institutions. However, contrary to our hypotheses, there was no evidence the experimental group relied less on dispositional trust as a basis for institutional trust. There also was some evidence the experimental group's trust in water regulatory institutions was less affected by fluctuations of trustworthiness (but not distrustworthiness) perceptions over time. This suggests that knowledge results in the development of more stable institutional trust attitudes, but that trustworthiness and distrustworthiness perceptions may operate somewhat differently when impacting trust in specific institutions.
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