What Is Your Social Reputation?

An evolutionary perspective on why reputation matters

Posted Oct 22, 2018

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People work hard to cultivate a positive reputation. We want our names to elicit respect. We want others to see us as on the “good” side of the “good/bad” divide. And efforts by others to damage our reputation can really make us angry.

In humans, one’s reputation matters quite a bit. The evolutionary perspective tells us why (see Geher, Di Santo, & Planke, 2019).

Reputation in Small Social Groups

Large-scale social groups, such as the thousands of people who populate my town of New Paltz, NY, the millions of people who comprise the residents of New York City, or the hundreds of millions of people who comprise the group of citizens of the United States of America, are a relatively recent human invention. Until agriculture emerged around 10,000 years ago, all humans were nomads (see my brief textbook, Evolutionary Psychology 101, for more on this point) — and all human groups were small by today’s standards. Due to practical constraints, nomadic groups can't be too big, because moving a group that numbers into the thousands every few months is really just not an easy feat.

Under ancestral conditions, then, human groups tended to be capped at about 150. In these small groups, people encountered the same other individuals regularly — across their lifespans. Members of one’s clan included many kin members, as well as many individuals with long-term familial relationships within the clan. There were no strangers in the group. And all communication was done in person. The opportunity to hide behind a screen did not exist.

In such a community setting, you’d better watch your reputation. In such a setting, people help one another with a strong expectation that others will reciprocate. This form of reciprocal altruism (see Trivers, 1971) permeates social life in nomadic groups.

In such an environment, we can see how reputation matters quite a bit. If you get tagged as someone who won’t contribute his or her fair share, that might be a hard tag to shake. Remember, you’re going to see the same other individuals over and over and over again. Until either they die, or until you die. In such an environment, it will ultimately benefit you to gain a reputation for being giving and other-oriented.

Why It’s Bad to Be a “Selfish Jerk” Today

These days, you might live in a giant city. You might be thinking that reputation matters less to you in your current-day Chicago life than it mattered to our ancestors under pre-agrarian conditions. After all, if someone doesn’t think much of you, you have millions of others to choose from as social partners.

Yeah, but not really. Reputation, in fact, matters quite a bit these days, in spite of the fact that so many of us no longer live in nomadic conditions. This is partly because our evolved social psychology was shaped by the social environments experienced by our pre-agrarian ancestors, who dealt with small-scale groups for thousand and thousands of generations. Modern civilization is about 10,000 years old. And from an evolutionary perspective, that is a blink of an eye. Our minds are still adapted to ancestral small-scale conditions. And this is why one’s social reputation matters so much, even if we no longer live in small groups.

Being tagged as “a selfish jerk” today can sting quite a bit. And it can have adverse implications for one’s social and emotional world. We have a strong preference for others who have reputations as being kind and other-oriented (see Buss, 2016). And this fact, rooted in our evolved psychology, shapes our modern worlds in profound ways today.

Bottom Line

Humans evolved in small-scale societies in which people were surrounded by the same others over extended periods of time. Under such conditions, reputation matters. And as is the case with so much of our evolved psychology, our modern minds are still matched to those small-scale conditions. And this is why someone’s reputation matters so much today. Cultivating a reputation as someone who is genuinely kind and giving to others can go a long way in leading to a richer life.

Acknowledgement: Thanks to my graduate students and the co-supervisors of the New Paltz Evolutionary Psychology Lab, Jacqueline Di Santo and Julie Planke, who co-authored a recent paper with me on this topic and who helped inspire this post. Keep up the great work, Jacqueline and Julie!

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Buss, D. M. (2016). The evolution of desire: Strategies of human mating (Revised edition). New York: Basic Books.

Dunbar, R. I. M. (1992). Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates. Journal of Human Evolution, 22, 469–493.

Geher, G. (2014). Evolutionary Psychology 101. New York: Springer.

Geher G., Di Santo J.M., Planke J.A. (2019) Social Reputation. In: Shackelford T., Weekes-Shackelford V. (eds) Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science. Springer, Cham.

Trivers, R. L. (1971). The evolution of reciprocal altruism. Quarterly Review of Biology, 46, 35–57.