Social reputation refers to the global impression that individuals within a community hold regarding a particular target individual. From an evolutionary perspective, we can think of one’s social reputation as largely existing on a continuum with selfish on one end and other-oriented on the other.
From an evolutionary perspective, the issue of reputation is initially something of a conundrum. That is, evolution generally selects for attributes of organisms that primarily and ultimately facilitate one’s own probability of survival and/or reproduction (Dawkins 1976). To understand the relevance of one’s social reputation from an evolutionary perspective, we need an understanding of the fact that humans evolved in contexts in which we interacted with the same other individuals repeatedly over long periods of time in small-scale societal conditions (Dunbar 1992). Further, a hallmark of being human pertains to the fact that these social conditions included a mixture of kin and nonkin. In such circumstances, reciprocal altruism (see Trivers 1971), or helping others with an implicit expectation of help back at a future point, can evolve to be a very powerful force in shaping social psychological phenomena.
In fact, reciprocal altruism ends up being a foundational aspect of what it means to be human, and this concept can help us understand a broad suite of cognitive and emotional processes in humans (see Geher 2014). For instance, we can understand guilt in terms of the fact that this emotion emerges when people fail to reciprocate altruistic acts within one’s social circle. Similarly, apologetic behavior can be understood as having the function of staying connected with others after some sort of transgression. From this perspective, we can see how cultivating a reputation as a prosocial individual (i.e., an altruist) can ultimately have benefits that flow back to oneself within the context of his or her social circle. On the other hand, having a reputation as someone who is selfish and not trustworthy could have very damaging consequences for oneself.
The Social Ecology of the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness
Prior to the advent of agriculture, our ancestors lived in small, nomadic societies in numbers rarely exceeding 150 (Dunbar 1992). And in these small groups of individuals whom you would spend your whole life interacting with, about half were kin (i.e., genetically related individuals) and half were nonkin whom one interacted with regularly. An implication of this feature of the ancestral human social ecology is that human psychological processes were shaped to deal with about 150 total individuals, a number now referred to as Dunbar’s number.
The importance and relevance of Dunbar’s number is that our minds evolved for small-scale living and interactions. Further, because of our evolved affinity toward small-scale social groups, things like social reputation weigh heavily on our livelihood.
The social ecology of the species must be such that individuals live in small groups comprised of the same individuals.
The lifespan of the species must be relatively long (so that altruistic behavior has a chance of being paid back).
The members of the species must be able to recognize specific conspecifics as individuals (so that an individual is able to differentially reciprocate based on who is who).
Humans fit these criteria to a tee (see Trivers 1985). So it is not surprising that reciprocal altruism is a foundational feature of the human social world.
In a world in which reciprocal altruism is ubiquitous, you have to watch yourself. If you never help anyone, then you might be ostracized and shunned. Even hated. If you help anyone at any point with zero discrimination as to who has helped you in the past, you risk being seen as someone who others might take advantage of.
In their classic work on the cognitive psychology of cheater detection, Cosmides and Tooby (1992) provided strong evidence demonstrating that human logic-based reasoning is enhanced when we are primed to think about a scenario in which someone might be trying to cheat others in a social context. In other words, when we are primed to think about if someone is failing to reciprocate altruism, our minds seem particularly astute. This general finding fits strongly with the idea that reciprocal altruism is a foundational part of the human social world. Our evolved psychology is filled with adaptations that were shaped by the fact of reciprocal altruism.
The Emergence of Social Reputation
Cultivating a reputation as a trustworthy altruist within one’s community has both potential long- and short-term benefits aiding one’s capacity for survival and reproductive success. In fact, prosocial, other-oriented personality traits (e.g., empathy, kindness, high agreeableness) are highly attractive and sought-after in potential mates (see Buss 2003). Nesse (2007) argues that the unique, and sometimes extreme, altruistic tendencies of humans evolved due to mating competition and is possibly a result of runaway social selection processes. This competitive altruism has been found to be a successful courtship display used to attract others (Barclay 2010), specifically when these signals are socially conspicuous, serving to bolster one’s social reputation.
While cultivating a reputation as an altruist is one clear social strategy in humans, there are clearly a plurality of social strategies that exist in our species. For instance, one may take another avenue for evolutionary success and instead choose to maintain his or her social reputation as a dark, confident, powerful, and fear-inducing individual. Such a dark strategy may be successful in certain contexts. However, when it comes to human evolved social psychology, any behavioral strategy comes with a variety of costs and benefits.
One empirical study supporting the competitive aspects and direct effects that altruistic behavior has on one’s social reputation found that participants chose costlier signals and helped more, to essentially “show off,” when the altruistic behavior was public, rather than anonymous (Bereczkei et al. 2010). Public displays of altruism, even if costly, appear to have an overall payoff in terms of social recognition, prestige, and popularity. In other words, altruistic behavior may partly be about cultivating a positive social reputation.
Under ancestral conditions, humans evolved in small-scale societies, surrounded by the same others for the lion’s share of their lives (Dunbar 1992). Related to this kind of social ecology, reciprocal altruism evolved as a basic aspect of how humans interact with one another. In such a social world, there are clear benefits to oneself that follow from helping others – especially in publicly observable contexts (see Barclay 2010).
While taking a selfish approach to life as a human may have various immediate kinds of payoffs, being tagged as selfish in terms of one’s social reputation within the group can actually be quite deleterious to one’s life. Across one’s entire social life, social reputation matters. And the evolutionary perspective helps us understand why.
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