Why do we care about what others think? In "People Will Talk: The Surprising Science of Reputation," author John Whitfield answers that question. Whitfield explores a topic in his new book that's very close to the human condition: reputation and gossip.
According to Whitfield, gossip and the impact it has on our reputations is a human evolutionary adaption, used to categorize one another. The threat of destroying one's reputation is what keeps many of us from acting inappropriately because – truth be told – there’s very little wiggle room. Humans have what’s known as a negativity bias, meaning we pay more attention to negative events than positive ones. And since studies have shown that it takes many good deeds to balance a single bad, we are all ultimately defined by the absolute worst thing that we do.
That’s why we guard our reputation so closely. But obviously there is more to a good reputation than being upstanding, moral and successful. A good rep, says Whitfield, depends on having a strong social network, both to spread the good word about you and to defend you from nasty rumors. Notwithstanding, reputation is a source of discomfort because it gives others power over us, and can’t be controlled on our own.
Why isn’t it always the most successful or most moral people who end up with spotless reputations? If our image is tarnished, how do we polish it up? Did you ever check yourself from doing something solely out of fear for your reputation? Why do we love gossip so much?
John Whitfield, author of “People Will Talk: The Surprising Science of Reputation.” Also a science writer who’s written for Nature, Discover, and Scientific American among others. He has a PhD in evolutionary biology from the University of Cambridge.