What are people going to think?

Has it ever crossed your mind? The question, I mean. In a moment of panic or a moment of regret or desperation? Have you ever said those words with a sense of anguish or in a moment of anger? What will people think if your actions fall outside the accepted realm of social behaviors? And why does it matter?

Some people may claim it matters less to them than others, and certainly, the opinion of others is not weighed equally in all situations. We rarely pause to consider what others might think when the context is good because we're assured that our status within the group is unaffected. And negative opinions held by those outside of our social networks may have less weight than others because they are less likely have an impact on future relations. Is it only when our social standing is threatened that we begin to wonder ... what are people going to think?

The social bank.

Joan Jett makes it clear how she feels about reputations:



An' I don't give a damn 'bout my reputation

Never said I wanted to improve my station

An' I'm only doin' good when I'm havin' fun

An' I don't have to please no one



Social status is an important factor in obtaining resources. We're more likely to help those who are more similar to us—people whose lives and situations we can understand, and people to whom we might feel a sense of obligation. Jett rightfully connects reputation with social status. Reputation functions as a type of social "bank" that collects socially acceptable actions that others can use to gauge the individual's social fitness.

If you've ever played Farmville or been a heavy participant on a forum and won a badge for your activity, then you've got the essence of what happens when you "bank" your behaviors. The badges you earn grant you visible status and rank within your community and suggest that certain behaviors may be expected of you—but also that you may be entitled to certain courtesies. For example, it may mean that your comments within the forum are weighed more heavily than others and that you have the authority to censor or ban other users for minor infractions.

The virtual badge system draws on the psychology of our response to social recognition in the real world. The more socially acceptable our actions, the more socially acceptable we become—though without the benefit of a snappy virtual badge. Of course, this is relative to our social groups. You can't, after all, please all of the people all of the time. We all belong to multiple networks, and it's true that membership in these networks may overlap so that we're interacting with some of the same people in different settings. Consequently, our relationships with these people may vary dependent on the context, and our social banks may have different values dependent on the network. We are more sensitive to bank values within groups that are closest to us with that concern diminishing the farther we move away from our core network of friends, family members, and (possibly) coworkers.

A license to behave badly.

Maybe you had a little too much to drink at that party. Or a desire to see a friend made you do something rude—like leave a meeting abruptly. As careful as you might be, there is a possibility that at some point you'll do something you wish you hadn't—and you'll wonder, what will people think?

The good news is that the balance of our social bank can help us out in a tough situation, but the nature of the actions in our bank also matters. Researchers found [pdf] that when transgressions were in different domains of behavior, people were more likely to look the other way, and reduce the damage to the individual's reputation. But an accountant who commits tax fraud or a marriage counselor caught cheating would have a harder time escaping the effects of judgment. Leaving abruptly because you were hurrying to meet a friend when you're typically never late—or rude—gives you pass because it's unintentional, whereas the marriage counselor comes across as a hypocrite whose actions are far from accidental—she can't be trusted:


When an actor's behavior clearly represents a moral violation—what we refer to as a blatant transgression—prior good deeds in a different domain might reduce observers' condemnation by seeming to balance out the bad behavior whereas prior good deeds in the same domain might make the actor appear hyprocritical.


Such licensing is more likely to occur within the circles that are closest to us—the people who know us best are in the best position to gauge the nuances of hypocrisy. So it is that ambiguous actions within the same domain might be overlooked if your social bank contains a large enough balance.

We're all in the business of impression management.

Reputation management is an ongoing affair, requiring the careful efforts of the individual as well as the approval of the individual's networks. To this end, we're engaged in impression management: we can change our behaviors in response to the situation to ensure that we're positively perceived. It won't work in the face of a blatant transgression, but it can help offset minor criticisms. And it helps us reinforce our sense of belonging to the group because it asserts an awareness of what is acceptable to the group.

Impression management can be deployed as a defensive strategy in the face of perceived threats or a sense of apprehension, or as an adaptive strategy that proves we are socially minded. Our reputations indication a degree of recognition, that we belong to a group no matter how small.

I'll leave you with Joan Jett. But she's wrong—we do give a damn about our reputations



Effron, D., & Monin, B. (2010). Letting People Off the Hook: When Do Good Deeds Excuse Transgressions? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36 (12), 1618-1634 DOI: 10.1177/0146167210385922

Uziel, L. (2010). Look at Me, I'm Happy and Creative: The Effect of Impression Management on Behavior in Social Presence Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36 (12), 1591-1602 DOI: 10.1177/0146167210386239