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Reputation is the general opinion (more technically, a social evaluation) of the public toward a person, a group of people, or an organization. It is an important factor in many fields, such as business, online communities or social status, and includes the social connotations associated with an individual's name (for example, the surname 'Patricus' or 'Patricianus' signified membership of the social 'upper class', a member of a 'noble family', or the 'nobility' of ancient Rome).

Reputation is known to be a ubiquitous, spontaneous and highly efficient mechanism of social control in natural societies. It is a subject of study in social, management and technological sciences. Its influence ranges from competitive settings, like markets, to cooperative ones, like firms, organisations, institutions and communities. Furthermore, reputation acts on different levels of agency, individual and supra-individual. At the supra-individual level, it concerns groups, communities, collectives and abstract social entities (such as firms, corporations, organisations, countries, cultures and even civilisations). It affects phenomena of different scale, from everyday life to relationships between nations. Reputation is a fundamental instrument of social order, based upon distributed, spontaneous social control.

A cognitive view of reputation

Until very recently, the cognitive nature of reputation was substantially ignored. This has caused a misunderstanding of the effective role of reputation in a number of real-life domains and the related scientific fields. In the study of cooperation and social dilemmas, the role of reputation as a partner selection mechanism started to be appreciated in the early eighties. An interdisciplinary integrated approach to reputation, accounting for both evolutionary grounds and cognitive mechanisms and processes, is still missing. Only such an integrated approach can point to guidelines for managing reputation and for designing technologies of reputation.

Working toward such a definition, reputation as a socially transmitted (meta-) belief (i.e., belief about belief) concerns properties of agents, namely their attitudes toward some socially desirable behaviour, be it cooperation, reciprocity, or norm-compliance. Reputation plays a crucial role in the evolution of these behaviours: reputation transmission allows socially desirable behaviour to emerge and persist even with low probability of repeated interaction.

Rather than concentrating on the property only, the cognitive model of reputation accounts also for the transmissibility and therefore for the propagation of reputation.

In order to model this aspect, it is necessary to specify and understand a more refined classification of the multi-faceted cognitive object commonly addressed as reputation.

A recommendation can be extremely precise (think for example of the stock market, where your advisor, when discussing the reputation of a bond, can supplement his informed opinion with both historical series and current events. On the contrary, in informal settings, gossip, although vague, may contain precious hints both to actual facts ("I've been told that this physician has shown questionable behaviour") and to conflicts taking place at the information level (if a candidate for a role spread bar doubtful reputation about another candidate, who should you trust?).

Moreover, the expression "it is said that (John Smith is a cheater)" is intrinsically a reputation spreading act, because on the one hand it refers to a (possibly fake) common opinion, and on the other the very act of saying "it is said" is self-assessing, since it provides at least one factual occasion when that something is said, exactly for the fact that the person who says so (the gossiper), while appearing to spread the saying a bit further, may actually be in the phase of initiating it.

Gossip can also be used as a tag only - as when gossipping about unreachable icons, like royalty or showbiz celebrities - useful only to show that the gossiper belongs to the group of the informed ones. While most cases seem to share the characteristic of being primarily used to predict future behaviour, they can have, for example, manipulative subgoals, even more important than the forecast.

Considering, for example, the case of a communication between two parts, one (the advisee) that is requesting advice about the potential for danger in an economical transaction with another part (the potential partner, target), and the other (the advisor, evaluator) that is giving advice.

Roughly speaking, the advice could fall under one of the following three categories:

  1. the adviser declares that it believes the potential partner is (is not) good for the transaction in object;
  2. the adviser declares that it believes that another (named or otherwise defined) agent or set of agents believes that the potential partner is (is not) good for the transaction in object;
  3. the adviser declares that it believes that in an undefined set of agents, there is a belief that the potential partner is (is not) good for the transaction in object;

Note the care to maintain the possible levels of truth (the adviser declares - but could be lying - that it believes - but could be wrong - etc..). The cases are listed, as it is evident, in decreasing order of responsibility. While one could feel that most actual examples fall under the first case, the other two are not unnecessarily complicated neither actually infrequent. Indeed, most of the common gossip falls under the third category, and, except for electronic interaction, this is the most frequent form of referral. All examples concern the evaluation of a given object (target), a social agent (which may be either individual or supraindividual, and in the latter case, either a group or a collective), held by another social agent, the evaluator.

The examples above can be turned in more precise definitions using the concept of social evaluation defined above. At this point, we can propose to coin a new lexical item, image, whose character should be immediately evident from the following:


Image is a global or averaged evaluation of a given target on the part of an agent. It consists of a (set of) social evaluations about the characteristics of the target. Image as an object of communication is what is exchanged in examples 1 and 2, above. In the second case, we call it third-party image. It may concern a subset of the target's characteristics, i.e., its willingness to comply with socially accepted norms and customs, or its skills. The key characteristic of image is that it is an accepted evaluation, not that it could be the result of direct experience (it could, but it could also have been formed in other ways), nor its definition as pertaining to a precise agent. Indeed, we can define special cases of image, including third-party image, the evaluation that an agent believes a third party has of the target, or even shared image, that is, an evaluation shared by a group. Not even this last is reputation, since it tries to define in a too precisely the mental status of the group.


Reputation, as distinct from Image, is the process and the effect of transmission of a target image. To be more precise, we call reputation transmission a communication of an evaluation without the specification of the evaluator, if not for a group attribution, and only in the default sense discussed before. This covers the case of example 3 above. More precisely, reputation is a believed, social, meta-evaluation; it is built upon three distinct but interrelated objects: (1) a cognitive representation, or more precisely a believed evaluation - this could be somebody's image, but is enough that this consist of a communicated evaluation; 2) a population object, i.e., a propagating believed evaluation; and (3) an objective emergent property at the agent level, i.e., what the agent is believed to be. In fact, reputation is a highly dynamic phenomenon in two distinct senses: it is subject to change, especially as an effect of corruption, errors, deception, etc.; and it emerges as an effect of a multi-level bidirectional process.

While image only moves (when transmitted and accepted) from an individual cognition to another, the anonymous character of reputation makes it a more complex phenomenon. Reputation proceeds from the level of individual cognition (when is born, possible as an image, but not always) to the level of social propagation (at this level, it not necessarily believed from any agent) and from this level back to that of individual cognition again (when it is accepted).

Moreover, once it gets to the population level, Reputation gives rise to a further property at the agent level. It is both what people think about targets and what targets are in the eyes of others.

From the very moment an agent is targeted by the community, his or her life will change whether he or she wants it or not or believes it or not. Reputation has become the immaterial, more powerful equivalent of a scarlet letter sewed to one's clothes. It is more powerful because it may not even be perceived by the individual to whom it sticks, and consequently it is out of the individual's power to control and manipulate.

Reputation-based decisions

Image and reputation are distinct objects. Both are social in two senses: they concern properties of another agent (the target's presumed attitude toward socially desirable behaviour), and they may be shared by a multitude of agents. However, the two notions operate at different levels. Image is a belief, namely, an evaluation. Reputation is a meta-belief, i.e., a belief about others' evaluations of the target with regard to a socially desirable behaviour. To better understand the difference between image and reputation, the mental decisions based upon them must be analysed at the following three levels:

accept the beliefs that form either a given image or acknowledge a given reputation. This implies that a believed evaluation gives rise to one's direct evaluation. Suppose I know that the friend I mostly admire has a good opinion of Mr. Berlusconi. However puzzled I may be by this dissonance-inducing news, I may be convinced due to my friendship to accept this evaluation and share it.
use image in order to decide whether and how to interact with the target. Once I have my own opinion (perhaps resulting from acceptance of others' evaluations) about a target, I will use it to make decisions about my future actions concerning that target. Perhaps, I may abstain from participating in political activity against Mr. Berlusconi.
transmit my (or others') evaluative beliefs about a given target to others. Whether or not I act in conformity with a propagating evaluation, I may decide to spread the news to others.

Online reputation

Reputation is a factor in any online community where trust is important. Examples include eBay an auction service which uses a system of customer feedback to publicly rate each member's reputation. One study found that a good reputation added 7.6% to the price received.[1] In addition, building and maintaining a good reputation can be a significant motivation for contributing to online communities. See Motivations for contributing to online communities for more information.

Reputation as extension of ego

Concern over reputation is sometimes considered a human fault, exaggerated in importance due to the fragile nature of the human ego. Shakespeare provides the following insight from Othello:

Cassio. Reputation, reputation, reputation! O! I have lost my reputation. I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial. My reputation, Iago, my reputation!
Iago. As I am an honest man, I thought you had received some bodily wound; there is more offence in that than in reputation. Reputation is an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit, and lost without deserving: you have lost no reputation at all, unless you repute yourself such a loser. Shakespeare, Othello, the Moor of Venice Act II. Scene III, 225-226.

See also


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