My high school experience, like that of nearly everyone who attended my school, was a perplexing one. It seemed there were only a few “popular” people — those that everyone knew and liked — and wanted to be like. Everyone else was much like me: they struggled to become more popular, with little success. Everyone had a few friends, but somehow these friends were never as good as the popular people would be, or so it seemed.
One of the things that I believed was preventing me from becoming popular was my reputation. Those who knew me saw me in a certain way — a non-popular way. Maybe if I started to do popular-ish things, then people would notice me and I’d eventually become popular. I tried being nice to people, telling jokes, buying people lunch, wearing better clothes, but none of it seemed to matter much. Everyone who bothered to notice me thought pretty much the same of me as they had before.
But being popular and having a good reputation aren’t just valuable in high school. The people who get promotions and make sales in business always seem to be the ones who’ve got the most connections. Sure, knowledge and skill matter, but “knowing the right people” also seems to matter, especially if the right people think highly of you.
But there have been surprisingly few studies of how reputations — good or bad — develop. Cameron Anderson and Aiwa Shirako say there hasn’t been any realistic study exploring how peoples’ reputations are formed. The few laboratory studies typically don’t account for secondhand information — gossip — which can be an important source of information about a person. To do this requires a long-term setting involving many interactions among a large group of individuals. Anderson and Shirako found such a setting in a semester-long business-school negotiation course with 39 students.
In this class, students were frequently divided into small groups to participate in realistic business negotiation scenarios: the purchase of a business, hiring, and mediating conflicts between employees. At the start of the class, each student rated how well they knew all of their classmates. After each negotiation session, partners were rated for how trustworthy, empathetic, and caring they had been in the session. Finally, independent judges rated how successful each negotiator had been in each session — both in securing their own interests, and in achieving a result that was satisfactory to all participants.
At the end of the semester, each student was asked to nominate the most trustworthy and sympathetic negotiators. People who received a lot of nominations in these categories were said to have developed a reputation for cooperativeness. Students were also asked to nominate the most aggressive and ruthless negotiators, which combined to form a measure of a reputation for selfishness. The key to this study was the comparison of actual cooperative and selfish behavior with those reputations. Were people who were actually cooperative in negotiations nominated by their classmates? It depends on one additional factor: how popular each student was at the beginning of the course. Take a look at this graph of the results for cooperativeness:
It turns out that your reputation for cooperativeness is only affected by your behavior if you’re already popular. If you’re not popular, it appears that no one takes notice of your behavior, so it has no impact on your reputation. People with lots of social connections can build a good reputation — or a bad one — with much more ease than people with few social connections.
Anderson and Shirako also asked students what the bases for their reputation nominations were, and found that popular people were nominated significantly more frequently based both on first- and second-hand knowledge. So if a person is popular, people are more likely to talk about them, more likely to act based on what they’ve heard, and even more likely to notice the popular person’s behavior when talking with them face-to-face.
So it may be that the reason I never became popular in high school was that I was going about it backwards. Instead of trying to acquire a reputation first and get friends later, I needed to get the friends first, then work on my reputation. But how do you get friends if you don’t have a reputation — good or bad? That, unfortunately, is what makes high school such an awkward time for so many of us.
Cameron Anderson, Aiwa Shirako (2008). Are individuals’ reputations related to their history of behavior? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94 (2), 320-333 DOI: 10.1037/0022-35126.96.36.1990