How far would you go to protect your reputation?

From Nights, 9:35 pm on 23 November 2023

Would you rather amputate your dominant hand or have the reputation of being a paedophile?

That's the kind of hypothetical question award-winning social psychology researcher Dr Andrew Vonasch asks people to study the power of reputation.

A hand facing up

Photo: Juan Pablo Serrano Arenas

Dr Andrew Vonasch won the University of Canterbury's Early and Emerging Career Researcher Award for 2023.

Social psychologist and University of Canterbury lecturer Dr Andrew Vonasch

Social psychologist and University of Canterbury lecturer Dr Andrew Vonasch Photo: University of Canterbury

Compared to other species, humans have a highly sophisticated sense of morality, Vonasch tells Mark Leishman.

As fundamentally social animals, reputation is so important to us because we have to rely on the moral trustworthiness of strangers.

Theoretically, a hermit living in the middle of the woods wouldn't need to care about reputation, but most of us – particularly people who live in small, tight-knit, rural communities – are "socially visible", he says.

Our personal reputation, although important, only really exists as an idea held in the minds of others.

"It's not like an objective, tangible thing that you can point and look at ... It's only in other people's minds and yet it's so important that people are willing to sacrifice their lives to protect it."

Vonasch says he and his fellow researchers were the first in the world to explore whether people would actually choose death over damage to their reputation.

More than half the people in one study group said they'd rather amputate their dominant hand than have the reputation of being a paedophile, he says, and about half of another group said they'd rather die immediately than face that prospect.

Later, to test what people would actually do to protect their reputation, Vonasch's team created a rigged test that deemed study participants to be either "extremely racist" or "slightly racist" and then asked them to make a choice.

"We said 'You can either share your score with the university community, which was our proxy for damaging their reputation, or if they didn't want to do that they could put their hand in a bucket of squirming worms and hold it there for a minute.

'What we found is that people were much more willing to put their hand in the bucket of worms if they had been [given the "extremely racist" result] where their reputations are on the line."

The psychological strategy of "burning bridges" as demonstrated by controversial former American president Donald Trump, is an interesting way to play the reputation game, Vonasch says.

"He's unpopular with many people around the world but the only thing that really matters to him is whether he's popular with the people who are supportive of him, the base… He's done a lot of things that upset a lot of us, a lot of people around the world, but that may signal his loyalty to the base.

"By saying outrageous and outlandish things that most people hate, it prevents him from appealing to those people and it signals that he's loyal to the people within his group who won't hate him for that."

Elevating our own reputation isn't something we're wise to focus on specifically, he says.

"If you worry too much about the reputational consequences of your actions, if that's first and foremost in your mind, it may appear to strategic to others – ie 'Oh, he's doing this nice thing, but he's only doing it to benefit himself'. People will pick up on that and they will not really like it. So I think it's important to protect your reputation through genuine good behavior rather than just trying to make yourself look good.