Chapter 6: Agreeableness – the trust dimension – From Fear to Flow

6

Agreeableness – the trust dimension

Introduction

The personality dimension most strongly related to trust versus critical evaluation of information is agreeableness. Agreeable persons foremost strive to create and sustain harmony. They are benevolent and trusting, and rely on others’ good intentions. This attitude is evident also in their information behavior, where they tend to be accepting of the information they encounter. In contrast, persons with low agreeableness tend to be disbelieving, skeptical and demanding in their general attitude towards life as well as in their conception of information. Such an attitude may be problematic overall, but it may bring with it some advantages in an information-seeking context. Competitive persons often find it easy to evaluate information critically, and are seldom caught off guard by misinformation. While agreeable persons are cooperative information seekers, competitive persons do not generally accept help in their search process even when it would be needed. They also tend to be impatient information seekers, expecting immediate results on their quests, while agreeable persons would be more tolerant and accommodating.

An agreeable searcher would speak as illustrated in Figure 6.1.

Figure 6.1 The agreeable searcher

The agreeableness scale is linked to nurture, compassion and empathy versus hostility, indifference and self-centeredness. Agreeable persons tend to be pleasant, considerate and caring, naturally reaching out to help others whenever needed. Typical characteristics for them are altruism, kindness and warmth (Costa and McCrae, 1992). Competitive persons tend to be self-centered, suspicious, intolerant and confrontational. They foremost look for their own gain, and may be willing to sacrifice good relations in the process.

A competitive information seeker reflects as shown in Figure 6.2.

Figure 6.2 The competitive searcher

Agreeable information interaction

Agreeable persons are accommodating and foremost strive for harmony and conciliation in interpersonal relations. This attitude also plays out in an information-seeking context, where they often hold an adapting, subdued and trusting information attitude, allowing others to take the lead. Even though agreeable persons may secretly wish for more information than they are given, they are seldom demanding or judgmental. Instead they adopt a passive role, strive to avoid conflicts and rarely challenge authorities. This was shown for instance in a health context, where agreeable persons readily accepted that their physician made decisions on their behalf regarding treatment options (Flynn and Smith, 2007). This does not imply that agreeable people would find it difficult to make choices per se, but instead points to their desire for unity in interpersonal relations. For instance, in a career choice situation agreeableness has been positively correlated with career decidedness (Lounsbury et al., 2005). When agreeable persons are free to make their own decisions regarding their career they step up to the challenge, but if making their own voice heard would mean negotiating and fighting for it they are more likely to withdraw and follow an authoritative leader. They believe that it is sometimes worth creating and maintaining conformity even at the cost of sacrificing one’s own preferences. Harmony is their first priority.

Agreeable persons are nurturing and caring, always doing their best to help others. As this attitude is strong and self-evident for them, they may also expect the same sincerity and benevolence in others. This may lead to trust and acceptance when it comes to information. Trust is indeed an essential element in information acquisition. The information source must be assessed as to what degree it possesses the required information and gives an honest and unbiased account of it (Hertzum et al., 2002). People who are agreeable tend to be unquestioning, and rely on the truthfulness of the information they are given. Sometimes this per se cherishable attitude may come with a caveat. High levels of agreeableness may for instance lead to unreflective and immediate acceptance of misinformation (Eisen et al., 2002). Those with high agreeableness at times tend to be innocent and naïve, and therefore somewhat easy to take advantage of (McCrae and Costa, 2008). In other contexts, however, trust is good. Willingness to engage in career planning, trust in career information and inclination to seek out and listen to the advice of others have been shown to facilitate agreeable students’ career decision processes. In contrast, competitive students might be less willing to accept help, advice and encouragement. This in turn often makes their decision-making process unnecessarily difficult, as they end up all by themselves in a situation where outside support would in fact make their choice easier (Lounsbury et al., 2005).

Competitive information interaction

Today’s information world brings with it a myriad of opportunities to get hold of information easily and conveniently. Unfortunately, this wide access also facilitates unethical behavior. Plagiarism is becoming an increasingly spreading problem due to convenient copy-paste functions. For agreeable persons plagiarism and other unethical methods are unthinkable. They are obedient and trustworthy, as well as compliant with laws and procedures. This make them also stand out with high morals and exemplary conduct when it comes to correct information use. In addition, agreeable persons are considerate, modest and cooperative, which further strengthens their desire to act in a proper and reliable way. Not everyone is as honorable, though. Those with low agreeableness have been shown to be less likely to abide by laws, procedures and cultural norms. As a result they are more prone to resort to cheating and dishonorable information use such as plagiarism (Karim et al., 2009). One explanation may be that they simply do not have the same high standards and morals as highly agreeable persons. Another reason could be that they often are fairly indifferent and hurried in their information use.

Typical of competitive persons is impatience (Costa and McCrae, 1992). This attitude often plays out in a ‘first come, first grab’ attitude to information seeking. Impatient persons are unlikely to devote too much time to looking around for the optimal information source; instead they are content with the first somewhat-relevant search result they come across. Their sole goal is simply fast completion. Of course lack of time can be a reality, as I am sure the reader has experienced. Under these circumstances the only option may be to resort to hasty and superficial information seeking. It is when this turns into a general attitude that it becomes problematic. Rushed information seeking unquestionably often comes at a price. Impatient persons frequently face problems with relevance judgment: confident decisions require time to get acquainted with the topic from various viewpoints. Relying on fast choices may also create obvious problems in applying and learning from the information that has been acquired (Heinström, 2005).

Just as highly agreeable persons are trusting, so those with low agreeableness are cynical and competitive. Low interpersonal trust may create disbelief in a purchase situation online, for instance, where skeptical persons often doubt and question the product information they are given (Das et al., 2003). Competitive persons thus often have a negative and doubtful view of others’ intentions. This might be a drawback for them socially, but in an informationseeking context this attitude may be advantageous. In academia critical thinking is essential in regard to research results as well as information sources. This is not an easy skill to develop, and for students taking their first steps on their academic career path it might be particularly challenging. The average student tends to find critical information evaluation problematic, and struggles amid a wide variety of information sources, not knowing what to believe. Competitive students are seldom bothered by this challenge, as skeptical evaluation might be something of a second nature for them (Heinström, 2003). Thus although skepticism and negativity may haunt their social relations, at least there are some contexts where competitive and critical persons may shine.