Reputation

How do norms shape our behaviors? As social animals we rely on a good reputation which helps us gain allies, build coalitions, and have close bonds between family and friends. A good reputation increases trust, convinces others that they should invest in our friendship, and tells the social group give us a hand every now and then if we need help. When it comes to building and maintaining a good reputation, norms are crucial.

 

As Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write in their book The Elephant in the Brain, “It’s rarely in people’s best interests to stick out their necks to punish transgressors. But throw some reputation into the mix and it can suddenly become profitable. Someone who helps evict a cheater will be celebrated fro her leadership. Who would you rather team up with: someone who stands by while rules are flouted, or someone who stands up for what’s right?”

 

Standing up to point out things that are wrong can be dangerous. The person breaking the rules could fight back, people close to the rule breaker might retaliate, your time could be wasted, and you might lose social status if people don’t really care about the rule breaker’s actions. Being the person who enforces norms is not always the best on an individual level.

 

However, as a social group, our reputation helps us maintain the norms and institutions which help us function and allow us to have whistle-blowers, police, and people who generally care that rules, laws, and regulations are actually being followed. We often have a temptation to slack off, to do something that we enjoy but know to be bad for ourselves, or to engage in some sort of activity that is fun but reckless. Knowing that we will have to interact with people in the future, that we will rely on social groups in the future, and that we will need others for anything we want to do later constrains our actions and behaviors in the moment. We try to be the type of person that society favors because we know it will benefit us at a future time. We care about our reputation because we might need substantial assistance from others at some point in our life, and we know that if we have a negative reputation, people are less likely to trust us and assist us in our time of need. As social creatures, developing an invisible system of reputation is what helps bond our norms together and hold them in place.

Language, Rules, Punishment

I studied Spanish during my undergraduate degree and I frequently listen to John McWhorter’s podcast Lexicon Valley. I enjoy thinking about language and I’m sometimes fascinated by the fact that sounds produced by one person can impact so much about the world. The language we have developed can shape so much of how we act and behave and how the world is structured around us.

 

In a short passage Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson reflect on humans, the societies we have built, and the roles we have evolved into over thousands of years in their book The Elephant in the Brain. “We are social animals who use language to decide on rules that the whole group must follow, and we use the threat of collective punishment to enforce these rules against even the strongest individuals. And although many rules vary from group to group, there are some – like those prohibiting rape and murder – that are universal to all human cultures.” 

 

Their quote really describes the state that humans have evolved into, but I think it is interesting to consider the role of language in this evolution. A species without a complex language likely would not have been able to develop the complex system of rules that we have adopted. So many of our rules are written down in statutes, laws, and regulations. Without them, following a collective set of rules and developing shared norms and punishments would be next to impossible. Even with a standard written language, we spend tons of time debating the meaning of the language we use to codify rules, and slight changes in understandings of language can change the outcomes that manifest in the real world.

 

Human societies have existed with rules and norms without written language, but the written word allowed us to build corporations, to organize criminal justice systems, and to develop social contracts that hold everything in place. Our language can boost the strongest and most brash demagogues, but it can also provide the spark to organize resistance and topple that same tyrant. Language allows us to take universal understandings of right and wrong and build outward, to create a system of fairness and justice that we can all operate within. Without our language, and without the evolution of our brain to allow for language, we might be doing just fine as small hunter-gatherer tribes, but we certainly would not be able to thrive in huge social societies with collective rules.

Deceiving Ourselves

Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write about evolutionary psychology of the brain in their book The Elephant in the Brain to explain why it is that we have hidden motives and why those hidden motives can be so hard to identify. The authors write (brackets mine, italics in original), “The human brain, according to this view [evolutionary psychology], was designed to deceive itself – in [Robert] Trivers’ words, ‘the better to deceive others.'” The authors look at how self-deception can be positive from an evolutionary perspective, and how that shapes the way we think about ourselves and our place in the world.

 

Fudging on the rules from time to time and making ourselves look better than we really are can be good strategies to survive, or at least they potentially were for our ancestors. Humans evolved in small, political, social tribes with rules and norms that were adhered to and enforced to varying degrees. Slight amounts of cheating, if they can go unnoticed, can be beneficial for survival. This drives an evolutionary pressure to pass along selfish genes that favor individual survival, adhere to the rules when it is convenient, but push rules aside when it benefits us. Simler and Hanson argue that this pressure is so strong, that we evolved to not even notice when we bend rules or apply them flexibly in ways that benefit us.

 

We can also seem to justify our actions, a process known as motivational reasoning, which says that we didn’t really do anything bad, we were just making the best decision we could given the circumstances or we were upholding fairness and justice in the absence of a greater authority to administer justice and fairness for us. The more we can convince ourselves that we are right and that we are on the correct side of a moral argument, the more we can convince others that our actions were just. If we are blatantly lying about our motivations, and we know we are lying, it will be harder to convince others and build support around our actions.

 

If however, we convince ourselves that our actions were right and our motives pure, we will have an easier time convincing others of our correctness and of our value to them and to society. When we give to charity, at least part of our donation is probably driven by a desire to want to be seen as the person who gives to charity or as a person with enough money to give some away. These two motivations, however, would be frowned upon. Instead, we convince ourselves that we gave to charity because it is the right thing to do, or because we think the cause is incredibly important. Those both may be true, but if we completely convince ourselves that we are donating for the high minded reasons, we will be more authentic and better able to convince other people that we made donations for high-minded and not selfish reasons. We are wired not to see the world as it is, but to see it through a filter that magnifies our greatness and minimizes our faults, deceiving ourselves so we can do a better job of presenting the best version of ourselves to the world.

Avoid Ascribing Guilt or Menace

I have been engaged with Stoicism for several years now and even though I work on recognizing my thoughts and reactions to the world around me, I am still frequently surprised by how quickly I can assume bad intent in another person and view others as terrible people when they do something I don’t like. Driving down the freeway and having someone speed past me, having to walk past a person smoking a cigarette, and even just having someone stand in front of the item I need at the grocery store are a few examples of relatively meaningless situations where I have found myself ascribing negative qualities and traits to other people who inconvenience me. My mind seizes the opportunity to say something bad about this other person and begins to tell me about how I am superior to them. It is only once I have realized that I have started to do this that I can pull my brain back and recognize that I am no better than anyone else and that these people did not do anything with the intent to harm, frustrate, or inconvenience me.

 

Colin Wright has a quote about this in his book Becoming Who We Need to Be, “It’s worth remembering that we cannot know what’s going on in another person’s head. We’re far more likely to see a stranger’s actions through our own lens than to attempt to look through theirs. When a stranger does something we perceive to be wrong, we’re likely to imbue that action with malice, whereas they might only see a harmless act. Our biases and prejudices color our perception of the world, and recognizing this, and working it into our math when we’re attempting to discern what’s happening, is on of the better ways to avoid ascribing guilt or menace to situations that are honest mistakes or blatant misinterpretations.”

 

For the most part, we live our own lives within a world filled with lots of gray. I don’t mean that the world is literally the color gray, unless maybe you live in a city like Seattle, but rather we operate within a set of rules and constantly bend them when it is convenient for us to do so. Our deviations from rules might be harmless, we might know that no one will notice so we won’t get caught, or we might tell ourselves we are breaking this rule just a little bit this one time so its no big deal. We like rules with flexibility where we can get away if we do the wrong thing if it doesn’t feel too bad and we dislike rules where there is no room for discretion (thanks to Robin Hanson for this). We see ourselves and the negative things we do in a more positive light (most of us) while viewing strangers and people who annoy us (like our younger siblings or neighbors) in a more negative light.

 

Constantly telling ourselves that we are good but that everyone else is bad is not just an inaccurate way to approach the world, but it is also bad for our health and bad for society. We know that we bend the rules all the time and rationalize our behaviors and decisions. We know that we spend a lot of time thinking about ourselves and how our decisions benefit us with little thought for others. We should keep this in mind and not be so quick to ascribe poor qualities to other people and we should recognize that they are thinking about themselves and not thinking about directly offending or inconveniencing us. Spending all our time being upset about others, channeling outrage to make ourselves feel superior, and looking for everyone else’s flaws is going to spike our stress responses and cause health problems. Letting this urge go will help us live more healthy lives, and will also help us connect with these people who frustrate us. By getting out of our own heads, we can connect with others in ways that might actually get them to also be more thoughtful and to behave better, or at least annoy and inconvenience us a little less.