It is hard to run from your reputation. Like your shadow, it keeps pace with you.
There are several aspects of reputation to consider:
- How does a good reputation help you?
- What factors influence whether you have a good reputation?
- What are the consequences of being too concerned about your reputation?
- Is there value in thinking about the reputation of others?
1. A recent study on baseball demonstrates how an especially fine reputation is helpful. Even if you aren’t a sports fan, I think you’ll find this of importance, but I’ll keep it brief.
As baseball fans know, the pitcher of the ball is trying to keep the hitter from getting on base. The rules require that if the pitcher throws the ball outside of the hitter’s “strike zone” four times, the hitter is automatically allowed to “walk” to first base. The formula is four “balls” thrown out of the “strike zone” = a “walk.” Unfortunately, however, Northwestern University’s Braden King and Columbia University’s Jerry Kim, have found that the pitcher’s reputation causes umpires to bias their judgment of those pitches that are not put in play by the batters.*
For example, “…umpires tended to favor All-Star pitchers. An umpire was about 16 percent more likely to erroneously call a pitch outside the zone a strike for a five-time All-Star than for a pitcher who had never appeared in an All-Star Game. An umpire was about 9 percent less likely to mistakenly call a real strike a ball for a five-time All-Star. The strike zone did actually seem to get bigger for All-Star pitchers and it tended to shrink for non-All-Stars.”
King and Kim further state:
Baseball insiders have long suspected what our research confirms: that umpires tend to make errors in ways that favor players who have established themselves at the top of the game’s status hierarchy. But our findings are also suggestive of the way that people in any sort of evaluative role — not just umpires — are unconsciously biased by simple “status characteristics.” Even constant monitoring and incentives can fail to train such biases out of us.
Simply put, we are influenced by status and reputation in ways that are difficult for us to overcome. It might lead to getting better or worse future grades because of your reputation as a good or poor student. It might mean that your reputation for work performance lands you better or worse jobs. It might mean that the school you went to (say Harvard or Yale) makes people think better of you, treat you differently, or automatically assume that you are smarter than someone who was just as intelligent but who could only afford to go to a more modestly priced school or no college at all.
2. Now for the second question: what factors influence whether you have a good reputation? I’ve already mentioned a few, but let’s consider others. For example, in the Ancient World of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, it was common to ask people not only where they came from, but also ask who were their parents. This might sound a bit rude in today’s Western World, but it routinely came up early in contact between strangers at that time. You see some of this in the Bible, too. One’s lineage was assumed to say something important about who you were; better, in other words, to be the child of a king (and the heir to the king’s wealth and the ability to benefit from his gold-filled pockets) than the offspring of a slave.
We do participate in the same practice today, although it may take us a little longer to find out the information. We frequently want to know details of one’s parentage, upbringing, and life history to form an “opinion” about whether a relatively new social contact is someone we can trust and rely upon.
There is a downside, too. If your family of origin has a history of alcoholism or drug abuse, mom or dad can be quite a social liability. Indeed, your own parents probably discouraged you from being friends with certain other childhood neighbors because of what they already believed about those potential playmates’ families. At the greatest extreme except for murder, is perhaps when there has been a suicide in the family in question. Although suicide was seen as a perfectly honorable act by some in the Ancient World, Christianity apparently changed the view of it. Now, many think of it as dishonorable, cowardly, or sinful, even if they are not Christian. Moreover, it raises questions about the suicide victim’s spouse, children, parents, and sometimes even others to whom he was close; that is, it can throw a shadow over their reputations.
3. What are the consequences of being too concerned about your reputation? At one level, your reputation is important to making a living. If you are thought to be industrious and creative, your ability to make a good living is likely to benefit. The reverse is also true if you are thought to be lazy, unreliable, untrustworthy, or dull. Naturally, then, some awareness of your reputation is important, as is a desire to have it shine a good light on you.
But there is an alternative view of this, especially regarding those who are insecure, preoccupied with status, overly sensitive, or believe they have things about themselves that must be hidden from others. Such a person might be forever trying to find out what others are saying and thinking about him or her. He might be afraid of becoming close to people for fear that they will find out the source of his shame. At the extreme then, ever-present reputation concerns can be an ongoing nightmare. This is especially unfortunate if we remember that most people spend much more time thinking about their own ups and downs than about you or your history.
The Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius put it well when he said: “I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinion of himself than on the opinion of others…” John Wooden, the famously successful UCLA basketball coach, went so far as to focus away from reputation to what he believed was more important: “Be more concerned with character than reputation. Character is what you are, reputation is what people think you are.” Winston Churchill, the great British statesman, said the same thing in a slightly different way: “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.” In other words, have the right character and the strength to stand for what is important to you despite what others may think.
4. Finally, how much value is there in thinking about the reputation of others? Put differently, is it important to consider what you’ve heard or read about people, but haven’t actually experienced directly with them or from them?
People in new sexual relationships often don’t give reputation enough value:
Friend: “He’s a player. Don’t trust him. He’ll hurt you!”
The Innocent: “Oh, but he seems so nice and considerate. That can’t possibly be true.”
History may not be a perfect predictor of future behavior, but it is often the best one we have. We sometimes ignore that history at our own risk. As a therapist, I know very well that people can and do change, but not all do, and not all want to. Those with a history, sometimes even a history of early life mischief, can return to lying, cheating, and breaking promises in their own self-interest; and they are often capable of rationalizing their reversion quite successfully.
That leaves us with some dilemmas, doesn’t it? Not all reputations for good or ill are deserved. Yet some are. Too much trust and you will be someone’s fool; too little and you will have no friends.
Not all people who appear to be decent are decent. They may either be “confidence men” or men in whom your confidence is justified. They may be either people who have made genuine and lasting changes or those who will abandon you or steal, lie, and cheat when the chips are down. Only experience and street smarts will help you tell who’s who and I’ve never met anyone who always has the perfect measure of others.
Hell may be other people, as Sartre said, but it is also heaven if you are lucky to meet the right ones and have the good judgment to tell the difference most of the time.
One more thing to remember. Be careful about being too judgmental. None of us is as good as we could be. I’ve never seen a perfect person, including the guy who looks back at me from the mirror.
*This op-ed, What Umpires Get Wrong, appeared in the March 30, 2014 New York Times in the Sunday Review, p. 12. The actual study will soon be published in the journal Management Science.