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People Will Talk

The Surprising Science of Reputation

John Whitfield

1996 Pierre Omidyar set up, which eventually grew into eBay. Initially made no attempt to control its users, charge any fees, or give any guarantees. But it was about least reassuring trading environment possible. Problem that buyers, worried that purchases would not be as good as described, or not even arrive, would bid low. High quality sellers would take their goods elsewhere. Solution was a reputation rating +1, 0 or -1. Used other people's willingness to gossip about each other to turn a hobby into a multi-billion dollar business.

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And yet it doesn't seem rational. Most people can be trusted, most of the time. Why, given the advantages of being otherwise, is that? Why are some people deceptive? And why should you bother to post feedback - you will probably never buy from that seller again, so why praise him, even if you got a good deal? Or if you got cheated, why go to the trouble of warning others (strangers you will never meet) about him?

Our willingness to trust strangers and to be trustworthy is one of the most amazing and powerful things in the history of society and one of the hardest to explain.

Many other species have worked out that the easiest way to make a decision is to copy someone else. many of the tools that reputation exploits were in place long before humans evolved. Birds, fish, insects, apes all pay close attention to their fellows and use that information to guide their behaviour. And they show off their resources to manipulate the audience. Humans, through conspicuous acts of courage, strength or generosity, do the same.

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Hardwired responses work well in stable environments. Instinctive, innate fear of snakes is an aid to survival. But caterpillars that once hatched from their eggs just as succulent young leaves were growing, are finding, in a warming world with earlier springs, that the leaves are already old and tough when they most need them. Humans who evolved hearty appetites for fat and sugar in an environment where both were scarce are not well adapted to KFC and all-you-can-eat buffets. So the ability to learn is an asset.

For most species, courtship is brief and and the consequences costly and irreversible, so any information they can get before committing is priceless.

Once you get past 30, young people seem to be ridiculously impressionable, mindlessly aping whatever is fashionable. Yet that can make perfect sense - if your experience is limited, then behaviour of others may be the best information you have.

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When see George Clooney endorsing Nespresso, it's not that we think that buying the product is going to make us more like him. Rather, we recognize him as a successful high-status individual and so assume that what he is doing is right.

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What's outrageous for a golfer is unremarkable in a rock star. The judgement then becomes whether someone's failings outweigh his or her successes and how much they connect to different areas of life. More books on Sport

We don't eat food or have sex because we calculate that that will increase our genetic contribution to the next generation. Instead we are driven by appetites. Evo psychologists argue that morality and altruism are similarly appetite driven. Morality is basically an understanding of what we can and cannot get away with. Altruism is a 'do-unto-others' strategy that you expect third parties to notice and to take into account when dealing with you.

Abraham Lincoln said "Character is like a tree and reputation is like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it, the tree is the real thing." The trouble is that the real thing is inaccessible. Your reputation may be only a small sliver of what you are really like, but it is what people know. And a heart of gold is no match for a silver tongue. We tend to believe the worst.

Why do scientists come across as nerds in conversation? Author suggests it's because scientists learn a completely different conversational style at work, which discourages banalities and strongly encourages confrontational destruction-testing of anything suggested. Not necessarily to expose the person as a moron, but simply as part of the fun. But of course not so much fun in a cocktail party setting where people expect small talk and are surprised to be forced to minutely justify opinions.

Richard Nisbett, a psych prof originally from Texas, wondered why US Southern States had much higher murder rate than Northern states. When analysed figures, deaths in robberies similar, but not in social killings. Southerners much more likely to kill someone they know, usually in quarrels sparked by an insult.

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So devised expts where students from Northern or Southern states exposed to aggravation and insults. Part of test involved walking down narrow corridor where guy had to shut file drawer to let subject past, calling him 'asshole' in process. Measured cortisol levels (stress hormone) and found big difference - Northerners unaffected, Southerners spiked in anger. Then did same thing again to another batch of students, and this time confronted them with someone else coming in opposite direction, forcing them to move aside. Northerners who hadn't been insulted stepped aside when other person 6 feet away, while those who'd been insulted waited an extra foot before giving way. In the aftermath of being called an asshole, however, Southerners waited until just 3 feet from oncoming person - and since he was a 6'3" 250 pound linebacker, this was just a little hard to understand.

Ultimatum Game - even when quite large sums of money on the table - 3 months wages - people will turn down an offer of a quarter of the pot. They value fairness over immediate gain, and they would rather punish someone who treats them unfairly than accept a derisory offer. But we don't just harm people who have harmed us. We are willing to punish wrongdoers in general.

Birds and animals care about reputation as well. Weaver birds in Africa, if cannot get a mate, will join an existing pair as a helper. Not for sex - DNA shows the female weaver only mates with her partner - but apparently because if demo that good provider, others will notice and choose him next season. And figured that out because of way behave when bring food back to nest. The bigger the bit of food, the longer they hang around outside the nest, making sure they're noticed. And the fewer other birds around the nest, also the longer they hang around before delivering the pizza.

Honesty Box expt. Researcher put a variety of pics above staffroom honesty box where supposed to pay for coffee and tea. Pic of a flower people paid average 15p per drink, pic showing eyes got 42p, and mad staring eyes 70p. Speculate that eyes conveyed message 'I have seen your good deed and you'll be rewarded" or "I will punish you if you don't do what's right."

Burglars and adulterers have been known to turn family photos face down. If have to look at themselves in mirror, students less likely to cheat on test, and trick-or-treaters take less candy from an unmonitored dish if there is a mirror behind it.

Autistics have trouble understanding and interpreting eye direction and contact. Simon Baron-Cohen told story of mother of a severely autistic child who went into a room to find him pointing at a toy on a high shelf. He'd worked out that pointing at something was a good way to get it, but hadn't sorted out that you needed an audience for the trick to work.

All primates pay attention to where other members of group are looking, but human's skill bit better. If human experimenter points her face to ceiling with eyes closed, a chimp will look in the same direction, but human infant will only do so when eyes open.

We have a negativity bias - we remember bad things more than good things that happen to us. Bad deeds far outweigh good deeds. Not only do bad deeds have more impact, it takes a huge amount of good deeds to compensate for the bad. The overall goodness of someone is determined by their worst bad deed. From the Bible (Ezekiel 3:20) "When a righteous man doth turn from his righteousness ... he shall die in his sin, and his righteousness which he hath done shall not be remembered." Or the joke that starts with guy walking round his village saying "I built that chapel, but do they call me Bill the Builder? No they don't... etc etc ..." and ends with punchline "but shag just one sheep ...."

Why are we so interested in celebrity gossip? Suggest that we regard (some of) them as part of out group, and as such, rivals for mates and status. Evidence that pay attention to celebs of same sex and similar age - Frank Sinatra stories ignored.

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Suggest that women gossip more because it's their way of fighting (to get help in winning mates or finding food).

Small communities distrust strangers because having no reputation is the same as having a bad reputation.

Two British scandals. The first was release of MP's expense claims. For a month details filled the papers, opening abusers to public condemnation and vilification. A record number chose not to stand for re-election. The second, in contrast, was the bankers cockup of risky loans which required govt bailouts of banks. But the bankers were impervious to criticism an continued to award themselves with rich bonuses. Author suggests that bankers social networks exclusively people like themselves - had no need to care what their victims thought of them.

Studies have found that it's only the people in the middle who worry about what people think of them. Those at the bottom have nowhere further to fall. Those at the top can buy their reputation if necessary, but mainly they are isolated from those who might want to criticize.

Some societies a lot more open than others. Every year Norway publishes a list of how much everybody earned and how much tax they paid. Several American states publish the earnings of public employees. Santa Fe publishes a list of the top ten water users. In Japan, where households must sort their trash into dozens of categories, rubbish bags are transparent, so your neighbours can see whether you're recycling.

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