How to have a good reputation?

When we assess a reputation we are making a prediction as to how that person would behave in certain circumstances. But since we are riddled with contradiction, this is not a simple story. Alongside the contexts in which our behaviour might change, looking within, we often have to manage tension and discomfort when our thoughts or behaviours conflict.

If I know that drinking can cause seven types of cancer and I carry on drinking this creates cognitive dissonance which threatens my reputation for consistency. This I have to resolve by compartmentalizing or rationalizing my thoughts and behaviour while actively avoiding situations where they obviously come into conflict. The psychologist Leon Festinger discovered this tendency to confabulate when confronted with such contradictions. He studied a cult who predicted that a flood was going to destroy the earth on 21 December 1954. The most committed of them gave up their jobs, relationships, college or sold their homes to commit to the cult completely on the expectation of being rescued by a flying saucer the night before the cataclysm. Of course, on the appointed night there was no visitor from outer space, and subsequently no flood. The members stayed up until dawn in disbelief. The most zealous cult members, faced with this clash between their belief and the evidence on the day, conjured up the idea that it was because of their unwavering faith that the flood had been called off.

In the reputation economy, we need to achieve warmth and competence, popularity and authority, being liked as well as being respected. Which reputation wins out depends on context and what is at stake. A good place to start is to think about what it means to trust someone. Colloquially, when you say you trust somebody it is natural for that to be an assessment of their motives, values or ethics. You trust them not to let you down because you trust their sincere intentions will ensure they do not put other self-serving motives ahead of doing the right thing. This aspect of trust is clearly centrally important to a functioning hyper-social animal, like us. What we recognize less often is that competence is equally central to trust. The bridge after all has to be strong enough to hold you up. Your ability to trust me is based on my perceived morality and my perceived capacity to deliver on my promises.

But in essence, if I don’t trust you to take my money to the bank, it’s because I fear you might pocket it (not very nice) or that you might lose it (not in control). In some ways this links back to our discussion of shame and guilt in the last chapter. We can blame someone for a moral failing in a different way to a physical failing because they have more control over the first, and thus can be held more accountable. And we suffer in distinct ways when we fail to achieve these forms of good judgement. If I fail to come across as nice this might trigger guilt. I’ve transgressed morally in some way. If I fail to be in control, competent, skilled, I am more likely to experience shame, and might feel repelled by my own clumsiness or weakness.

The sad fact is that we need to choose between the two more than we would like – there are too often cases of people being well motivated but ineffective, and of the reverse. It is hard to be both kind and competent; to be both warm-hearted and cool. The need for status, power, money, sex, self-esteem and so on play havoc with our better angels. And we make assessments of each other as to the likelihood of those mixed motives coming into play. And you can’t be perfect.

Check out my related post: Do nice guys finish last?

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