Tag Archives: reputation

On behalf of physical things

Most people inadvertently affect the reputations of groups they are seen as part of while they go about other activities. But some people also purposely exploit the fact that their behaviour and thoughts will be seen as evidence of those of a larger group, to give the false impression their views are widely supported. These people are basically stealing the good reputation of groups; they enjoy undeserved attention and leave the groups’ images polluted.

Such parasites often draw attention to what a very ordinary member of the targeted group they are, or just straight out claim to be speaking for that group. People who ‘have been a left voter for fifty years, but this year might just have to vote conservative’ are getting much of their force from implicitly claiming high representativeness of a large and respected group, and those who claim they write ‘what women really think‘ are more overt. From the perspective of women who think for instance, this is almost certain to be a damaging misrepresentation; any view other than your own is worse, and people who have good arguments are less likely to steal the authority of some unsuspecting demographic as support. It is also costly to listeners who are mislead, for instance about the extent to which women really think. Costs of prevention ignored then, less of this is better.

Purposeful exploitation of this sort should be easier than other externalities to groups’ reputations to punish and to want to punish; it’s easier to see, it’s directed at a specific group, and it’s more malevolent. However the public can’t punish or ignore all claims or implicit suggestions of representativeness, as there are also many useful and accurate ones. Often much of the interest in learning what specific strangers’ views are requires assuming that they are representative, and we keenly generalize this way. So mostly it is up to groups to identify and punish their own dishonest exploiters, usually via social pressure.

This means groups are easier to exploit if their members aren’t in a position to punish, because they don’t have the resources to deny respect that matters to the offenders. If you claim to be broadcasting what women think, most women don’t have the time or means to publicize the shamefulness of your malicious externalizing much. Even if they did they would not have much to gain from it personally, so there is a tragedy of the commons. And in big groups it is hard for a member or several to know whether another supposed group member is lying about the group’s average characteristics; they may just be a minority in the demographic themselves. Respectable groups are also good. Last, if most people have a lot of contact with the group in question, and the topic is a common one, it will be harder to misrepresent. So large, respectable, powerless or otherwise engaged groups who don’t commonly discuss the topic with the rest of society are best to make use of in this way.

I haven’t seen this kind of activity punished much, it doesn’t seem to be thought of as especially shameful. But given that, it seems rarer than I would guess. For instance, if you wanted to push a radical political agenda, why join the disrespected minor party who pushes that agenda rather than a moderate party, which allows you to suggest to your audience that even the larger and more reputable moderate party is coming around to the idea?

Perfect principles are for bargaining

When people commit to principles, they often consider one transgression ruinous to the whole agenda. Eating a sausage by drunken accident can end years of vegetarianism.

As a child I thought this crazy. Couldn’t vegetarians just eat meat when it was cheap under their rationale? Scrumptious leftovers at our restaurant, otherwise to be thrown away, couldn’t tempt vegetarian kids I knew. It would break their vegetarianism. Break it? Why did the integrity of the whole string of meals matter?  Any given sausage was such a tiny effect.

I eventually found two explanations. First, it’s easier to thwart temptation if you stake the whole deal on every choice. This is similar to betting a thousand dollars that you won’t eat chocolate this month. Second, commitment without gaps makes you seem a nicer, more reliable person to deal with. Viewers can’t necessarily judge the worthiness of each transgression, so they suspect the selectively committed of hypocrisy. Plus everyone can better rely on and trust a person who honors his commitments with less regard to consequence.

There’s another good reason though, which is related to the first. For almost any commitment there are constantly other people saying things like ‘What?! You want me to cook a separate meal because you have some fuzzy notion that there will be slightly less carbon emitted somewhere if you don’t eat this steak?’ Maintaining an ideal requires constantly negotiating with other parties who must suffer for it. Placing a lot of value on unmarred principles gives you a big advantage in these negotiations.

In negotiating generally, it is often useful to arrange visible costs to yourself for relinquishing too much ground. This is to persuade the other party that if they insist on the agreement being in that region, you will truly not be able to make a deal. So they are forced to agree to a position more favorable to you. This is the idea behind arranging for your parents to viciously punish you for smoking with your friends if you don’t want to smoke much. Similarly, attaching a visible large cost – the symbolic sacrifice of your principles – to relieving a friend of cooking tofu persuades your friend that you just can’t eat with them unless they concede. So that whole conversation is avoided, determined in your favor from the outset.

I used to be a vegetarian, and it was much less embarrassing to ask for vegetarian food then than was afterward when  I merely wanted to eat vegetarian most of the time. Not only does absolute commitment get you a better deal, but it allows you to commit to such a position without disrespectfully insisting on sacrificing the other’s interests for a small benefit.

Prompted by The Strategy of Conflict by Thomas Schelling.

What do trust and sharing do to reputations?

Bryan Caplan asked, ‘when doesn’t reputation work well?

He answers,

To me, venereal disease is the most striking response.  Unlike other disease, V.D. is simple to prevent: Only have sex with people who credibly show that they aren’t infected.  How hard is that?  But according to Wikipedia, AIDS alone kills over 2 million people per year.

He suggests this is caused by a demand problem (people are strangely willing to sleep with someone without evidence of their not having VDs) and a supply problem (people who have good reputations can’t take over the whole market), and asks whether there are other areas where reputation fails.

Making good decisions about small risks far in the future while horny is probably a rare skill, but not the only reason for the demand problem I think. Asking someone to credibly show that they aren’t infected credibly shows that you don’t trust them to tell you on their own. Trust is a handy thing to have the appearance of in relationships, but unfortunately requires behaving trustingly. A survey of  Texan girls shows 28% of them think they sometimes or never ‘have the right to’ ask their partner if he has been tested for STDs  (all the questions in the survey are  in terms of ‘rights’ to act certain ways, and I’m not sure what that means, but I guess it implies that asking would detriment their partner unacceptably).

Does this generalize to suggest other areas reputation doesn’t work that well? I think so. Knowing someone’s reputation allows you to trust them more. This means if you want to demonstrate that you trust someone already, something you should not do is visibly seek their reputation. Reputation should work less well then when demonstrating trust is useful and seeking information about reputation is visible.

When else is showing trust useful? Any time in relationships. Sure enough, I could assess a new boyfriend much better if I rung all his exes and got appraisals. But asking for their numbers is awkward. It would make him think I don’t trust his account of himself. Which would usually be entirely sensible of course. Out of earshot we might passionately use gossip and status cues to keep track of reputations, but if you invited your partner to seek reviews of your past behavior from others (as businesses do happily) it would be an implicit accusation of distrust.

Friends are another group to whom showing trust is important. Again, once you are friends with someone, reputation doesn’t work as well as it can in other situations because seeking it out or relying on it suggests distrust, or that you suspect the friendship isn’t enough to ensure  the other person behave well. If your friend asks to borrow a book for instance, and you have no previous data on whether they return things, you don’t usually ask them or other friends nearby about their track record. You probably lose the book, but it’s worth it. With friends and lovers, reputation is important for who you get involved with, but once you are involved the need to show trust hinders assessment on smaller issues.

Another area reputation can work poorly is when it is shared as a disorganized commons.  Stereotypes can be thought of as reputations attached to identities used by more than one person. Where stereotypes are triggered by a real statistical differences between populations, there is often an externality between those sharing a given reputation. Every time my sister elopes with a butcher’s son, or another woman does well on a math test, or a man from my social class goes to jail, it is not only their reputation which is changed, but incrementally mine too. This might provide useful information about me for onlookers, but the lack of feedback to the person triggering the change means no reason for them to adjust their behavior to take into account the effects on others. For instance had I much concern for my younger brothers’ treatment at high school I might have behaved differently when going through a couple of years before. This should be more of a problem if groups of people become relatively more similar, for instance if many copies exist of one upload they will have bigger interests in the behavior of their reputation sharers. More generally, our keen interest in constructing expectations of others from reputations is presumably a partial cause of whatever problems stereotypes entail.

Reputations can also work well when shared of course. In fact sharing is the only way that reputation does work, though often it is sharing of an identity by many instants of a person, which we do not usually think of as sharing. One person usually does take into account the wellbeing of their future moments to some extent at least. That so many people voluntarily affiliate with groups that lead to others having certain expectations of them is evidence that sharing between people can be great for those involved too. Companies for instance dress their employees the same and encourage shared style and behaviour, in the hope that their brand will be trusted. Because the members of the brand are rewarded or punished according to their effect on the whole company, not just themselves, the externality is removed and there are big gains to be made.