I came across a reference to People Will Talk: The Surprising Science of Reputation when I was looking for quotes about reputation, for a post I did some weeks ago on valuable possessions. I was intrigued by the idea that science could have insights on something like reputation, so I promptly requested the book from the library.
I’ve wondered for a long time – probably since my teens – why the thought of public embarrassment over some unwitting mistake or misunderstanding would trouble me more than guilt over having done something that I knew to be wrong. I wondered if other people felt the same way, but couldn’t think of a way to ask without feeling even more embarrassed over the explanations I would have to give in the process.
Part of the problem, I decided, was that when I had wronged someone, I could confess what I had done wrong and ask forgiveness. It was difficult to do, but, once forgiven, I could put the matter behind me. In the case of embarrassment over some mistake, however, there was nothing to ask forgiveness for, and thus no way I could think of to “wipe the slate clean” and put it behind me.
Thinking about it now, I suppose there is also the matter of how many people knew about whatever it was I had done. On the occasions when I made some foolish mistake in public, probably relatively few people remembered for very long, but I couldn’t know that for sure. The sort of things that I need to ask for forgiveness, on the other hand, may be known only by God and one or two other people.
In any case, I was eager to see what John Whitfield might say on that matter in his book. If he did say anything about it, I missed it. And I didn’t feel that I learned a whole lot on the subject of reputation in general. But for a book that I didn’t feel I was learning much from, it was a surprisingly readable and interesting book.
Some of the interesting parts deal with the behavior of various animals. It’s not reputation in the same sense that we use the word in reference to humans, but some animals – including some that we would think very far removed from us – clearly observe the behavior of others of their kind and act on what they learn. Some even appear to deliberately change their behavior precisely so that others observing them will not realize what they are really doing.
I found less interesting the various accounts of studies done on human subjects using one of various “games.” There is the public goods game, the prisoner’s dilemma, the dictator game, the economic trust game, and the ultimatum game. Maybe there is overlap among some of these – I had trouble remembering which game was which after the initial explanation.
Maybe if I had direct experience with any of these, I would understand them better and/or see more benefit from them. But I find it hard to be convinced that the way people behave in such contrived situations tells much about the roots of human motivation in interpersonal relationships. The studies show that people’s behavior is affected by whether other people know what they are doing – but that can hardly be news to anyone.
Other findings are likewise unsurprising – that men are more likely to take physical action against someone while women are more likely to mount a verbal assault, that reputation can be used to create trust or to intimidate, and that the size of a community has a lot to do with the effectiveness of controlling others’ behavior by reputation.
One insight that I did find valuable was in a discussion of the effects of money on behavior. We’re all familiar with the power of money to corrupt, but less aware of the effects of economic inequality. Most of the discussions I’ve read about economic inequality focus on the resentment of those who have little towards those who have much more.
Whitfield points out, however, that “reputation is strongest within a group of people who need one another and are on about the same level.” In a society with a high degree of economic inequality, “inequality severs social connections and splits a society into groups whose norms evolve separately and whose members cannot influence one another.”