How do you make a reputation for yourself?

ResearchBlogging.orgMy 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: 10.1037/0022-3514.94.2.320

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This comes as no surprise to me. An anecdote to illustate (and i bet if many of you think upon this you can think of a similar one):

My brother was having issues at work, involving a boss who never liked him and repeatedly gave him poor reviews. During this time he started Wellbutrin for depression related issues that all affected his job. Within a few months, not only had he changed bosses, but his morale and demeanor had improved, and his entire outlook on life and interactions with his coworkers changed and became pleasant instead of agonising.

A year later, he was not promoted despite his much improved performance. He was devastated, but i reminded him that although he could see the changes every minute of every day, his coworkers only saw them a few minutes a day a few times a week, and the lasting impression left by the negative boss who routinely reprimanded him would last longer than the glowing review he got from his new team.

A short N of One example for everybody to ponder. I'm sure you can all think of contradictory evidence, but i for one feel the results of this study match nicely with what we all saw in HS, and what we all experience in Teh Real World.

So it may be that the reason I never became popular in high school was that I was going about it backwards.

Maybe you were just an annoying dork?

HAHAHAH! Just kidding! Very interesting post.

Maybe you were just an annoying dork?

What are you talking about???!! I was the most popular member of the Varsity Chess Club!


Looks like this data is consistent with an article suggesting that two types of popularity exist (in the high school peer system; Cillessen and Rose, 2005), as suggested by what appears to be a significant interaction present in the data.

Looking at the graph, when less and more popular students having low actual cooperative behavior are compared, the more popular students are showing a lower reputation for cooperation (which seems contrary to intuition). This is consistent with perceived popularity. Perceived popular peers are known to have higher levels of relational aggression, and are usually well known but not necessarily well liked. A bully would be the most negative protoypical example of this; the jock would probably be closer to a positive example.

When less and more popular students having high actual cooperative behavior are compared, the more popular students are showing a higher reputation for cooperation (consistent with intuition). This is consistent with sociometric popularity. Sociometrically popular peers are known to have high levels of prosocial behavior (and low levels of aggression), are well known and well liked. The prototypical example would be the student president or any other student with leadership related qualities.

According to the authors, the popular peer in high school is usually of the perceived popularity variety. So I think is not really about making a reputation for oneself, but about the advantages/disadvantages of being perceived popular, sociometrically popular, or relatively unpopular in the long run.


Cillessen, A.H.N., & Rose, A.J. (2005). Understanding popularity in the peer system. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14, 102-105.

By Tony Jeremiah (not verified) on 26 Jun 2008 #permalink

Maybe I'm not getting the big picture here, but it just seems to me that people with better social skills (more friends) draw more response (negative or positive).

By --Lisa S. (not verified) on 26 Jun 2008 #permalink

The problem with trying to get friends-- the _right_ friends-- is that the popular students form cliques which exclude most people.

By David Group (not verified) on 27 Jun 2008 #permalink

That's fascinating. My own anecdotal observation (and guideline) is that it is more important to get noticed than what you get noticed for. And it makes perfect sense now.

Interesting post. Of course it doesn't begin to answer the question of what makes people popular in the first place. The answer to that question, is, I think, obvious. People who are self-assured and have attractive qualities such as good looks or a sense of humor are popular. Cooperative behavior has never seemed to me to have much to do with it. In over-willingness to cooperate smacks of desperation.

Why was there a negative correlation between cooperation and reputation for cooperation for the less popular students? Is this statistically significant? If so, does it pay to be unpopular and uncooperative?

A correlation exists with a strong reputation and performance, both in a school environment and in a business environment. A good reputation boosts your chance of performing better down the road because it provides you a relative way to compare with others on a public benchmark. How you are 'reviewed' by everyone might be hard to measure, but if you know your strengths and can ask others to rate you on your strengths, you stand a better chance to promote your reputation.

One way I would suggest doing is to use a free site for improving your online reputation - ReviewScale . This site hasn't launched yet but is solving the exact same problem.

This is in, this is REALLY retarded....

You were a loser becuase you don't have any social skills, besides, i don't know why you drew a chart about this...that was a serious waste of time. If people are saying something negative about you, just embrace it, and they'll lose interest as you show you have more confidence than they...

As for bad reputation, embrace that as well, there is no use in denying it, that would be contradictory, say it as a joke, the more you feel the need to 'prove' yourself, the more you lower your value