Editor's Choice

Reputation: What It Is and Why It Matters

December 15, 2017


Gloria Origgi has written a book on reputation that mixes the latest social science with the most timeless lessons of philosophy and literature to explore how our inner lives interact with and affect our social lives.

Reputation: What It Is and Why It Matters by Gloria Origgi, Princeton University Press, 296 pages, Hardcover, December 2017, ISBN 9780691175355

One way to define sanity is having an approximately similar view of ourselves as others have of us. It is when what we think of ourselves diverges drastically from how others view us—whether through deliberate, sociopathic manipulation of others’ view, or one’s own self-delusion—that our perception, behavior, or social interaction can become abnormal, or verifiably insane. I write that not to disparage the mentally ill, but to preface the topic of Gloria Origgi’s new book, Reputation.

One’s reputation can seem illusory, or ethereal, and as such not worthy of a great amount of attention in academia. But we all experience our reputation deeply everyday, and know that even if it does not precede us, it at least accompanies us everywhere we go. It can make or break careers, and a ruined reputation can ruin a life.

So, though it is hard to pin down in scientific fact, it is a deadly serious social reality in our lives. And the book opens with the literally deadly story of Jean-Claude Romand, a French imposter who convinced his friends and family he was a medical doctor at the WHO—for 18 years. In reality, after he left his family each day, he would read in his car in the WHO parking lot, pick up brochures available to the public in the lobby, or his spend days hiking the nearby woods or lounging in nearby cafes. As financial reality began to set in and his façade crumbled, rather than telling his family the truth, he murdered his wife and two children, and his parents. Rather than letting his real self be known to his family, he slaughtered them to keep his concocted self intact. Left with the choice of doing away with his reputation, or doing away with his family, he chose the the latter.

That is obviously an extreme case, but it points to how important our reputation is to the conception we have of ourselves, that many would rather lose their family than their reputation (if in less murderous circumstances). And more than a third of murderous circumstances in the United Stated stem from trivial damages or slights to one’s reputation such as verbal altercation and wanton insults. Research has shown that we experience perceived insult and a sense of personal injustice just as physically as we do real injury, that inflammation actually occurs in the body as it would around a physical wound.

Clearly, then, our reputation is an integral part of our identities. Origgi writes that:


All of us have two egos, two selves. These parallel and distinguishable identities make up who we are and profoundly affect how we behave. One is our subjectivity, consisting of our proprioceptive experiences, the physical sensations registered in our body. The other is our reputation, a reflection of ourselves that constitutes our social identity and makes how we see ourselves seen integral to our self-awareness.


Origgi’s book is a look at “our second nature, this second self that lives only as refracted through the thoughts and words of others.”

Human action, to the extent that that it is embedded in social interaction, is always haunted by an unsettled or ambivalent relation between being and seeming, between being who we privately are and who we publicly profess to be. It is never perfectly clear where one ends and the other begins. In fact, the developing and molting of “social skins” is an unending activity that permits us not only to negotiate our social identity along with others but also to affirm it, to construct it in our own eyes.

In this way, our reputation is just as much who we are as the physical stuff we’re made of. It is also an image of ourselves that we aspire to, the very foundation and definition of personal development. In fact:


One way to pressure ourselves into becoming the kind of person other people admire is to make them believe that we already have the characteristics that they would like to see in us. This circle is not only virtuous, it is also immensely consequential.


There is, of course, a fine line between convincing someone of our virtue and conning them—or even ourselves. And, as Origgi herself states, “How we internalize social rules, it should be said, can often be awkward and ridiculous.” This has been the stuff of satire and imaginative literature for centuries, and you’ll get countless book recommendations from Origgi on the topic, including Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, Balzac’s Lost Illusions, and Molière’s The Bourgeois Gentleman.

But she also delves methodologically into what the latest social science has to say about cultivating one’s reputation, and a rational strategy to do so “given the cost it imposes and the benefits it confers.” She uses a multidimensional, multidisciplinary approach to explore how social traits emerge, and the link between altruism and reputation, and the advantages that link may have conferred in our evolution as a species. She brings E.O. Wilson’s work on sociobiology to bear, and the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. You’ll learn the importance of informational cascades, social information and authority, rumor and propaganda, about our systemic biases and cognitive deficits, social networks and the role of hierarchies. She explores how children develop a sense of reputation, and the stages we go through cognitively to do so, explaining how:


Thinking with and through others soon becomes seeing oneself as seen and evaluated from what one believes to be the other’s point of view.


But, if you’re not interested in the particulars of things like Evolutionary Game Theory, there are more references to literature and film than scientific studies, if only because it is a field that has been more richly mined by art than academia. She moves from the story of Dionysius of Halicarnassus, in 507 BC, to the work of Sociologist Diego Gambetta in 2009, in the span of one page. She uses the 2014 movie Birdman to open her conclusion on “Reputation in Democracies.” It is a rapid-fire cornucopia of science, literature, history, and contemporary culture.

This is all getting more complicated, perhaps more convoluted, important and amplified, as we develop online personas and reputations. It is also of the utmost importance to the digital economy, which could not exist without the trust imparted by the collective wisdom of the web. And, if you’re interested in the reputation of wine or nature of academic reputations, there are chapters on each of those, as well.

How we project our self-image, and how it is accepted by others, is an extremely important part of our lives. Aligning those two, and aligning it within the values endorsed by society, is a big part of our social learning and overall wellbeing. You may not need to plum the academic depths of these topics, but Origgi offers much more beside that, and much to apply to our everyday, even our online, lives. And, even when it tends toward the academic, it’s filled with literary allusions, philosophical reflection, and other important information that keeps the pace up and mind fully engaged.
Reputation is more than an exploration of its topic. It is sound instruction for more critical thinking, for deliberate forethought, and for living in “a society that lives on reputation.” It is a reminder that authenticity is not only a product of how we live our inner lives, but of our social lives and our image in the eyes of other—and that how we show up in the world, and live in it, is interdependent on both.

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