What if Reputation Ruled the World

Reputation …

It’s a specter that follows us around announcing whether or not we’re someone who can be trusted. If you’re reputable … you’re given the benefit of the doubt. If not, people look out the corner of their eye at you … not daring to gaze directly for worry of a fate not unlike that which Medusa could wield. So instead of risking turning to stone … we avoid; avoid the date, avoid doing business or avoid most anything else. We care about our reputation because we want approval. Having a positive reputation will result in being approved of by more people … and having more success in life, personally and professionally.

A good portion of my adult life unfolded while being a recruiter … or as I preferred a headhunter. In my business, reputation was everything. It hinged on being trusted with information. When doing a search I was entrusted with confidential company strategies and tactics. While respecting this confidentiality, I had to know what I could divulge to potential candidates in order to gain their interest – and what to keep close. I couldn’t be blabbing to the world the ‘ins and outs’ of my clients’ business. I also had to be trusted to confidentially hold personal details on my candidates. If their current employers (most of all the people I recruited were employed) found out they were looking at other opportunities; at best they were put in the precarious position of having to explain themselves … or worse – outright fired.

This tightrope I played was a delicate balancing act. One valuable thing I brought to marketplace (to both my clients and candidates) was being a conduit of knowledge and trends on the industry and its players. I had to share just enough to be seen as an expert while not too much to jeopardize my reputation as someone who could keep a secret.

The success of my business depended on maintaining this reputation. With my narrow niche, the high-end printing and prepress community, news of any breach would spread like wildfire. Maintenance of my reputation was a continual process. Numerous times I wanted to share a interesting piece of info, knowing it could benefit me in the short-term … but I refrained.


Through our reputations we gain trust; trust we hope will get people to act the way we want them to do. These actions could be anything from liking us (physically or online), buying something from us, hiring us or even collaborating with us. It all comes down to trust – a direct result of our reputation.

So what actually is trust? According to Gwynne Monahan in a piece titled “How Do We Define Trust?”

Some referred to a “gut” feeling.

Some said they trusted until there was a reason not to, and when asked to elaborate, they spoke of violations or actions that were “untrustworthy.” Stealing, showing up late for work, lying.

It’s almost like trust is not really anything but an absence of fear or hesitation. I like to think we trust until we don’t. For me it’s almost a default position.

I take a Greyhound bus from Montana to Los Angeles twice a year. I like the bus. I get to meet all kinds of people I wouldn’t otherwise meet. I gain insight and perspective that’s not common in my circle of normal contacts. During each trip, which lasts a day and a half, there are short layovers. Each of these involves transporting baggage, enough for a at least a month. Invariably at times I have to separate from my bags, leaving them in the public bus terminal (bathroom breaks, etc.). When this happens I have to trust someone to watch them. These “someones” might be people I’ve already met on the previous leg of the trip. But sometimes they have to be someone I haven’t even met at all. Maybe it’s just a person in the chair next to me or waiting in line for their next connecting. There’s really no criteria on who I trust. Sometimes it’s an elderly women, and sometimes it’s someone who had just gotten out federal prison (you can tell by the grey sweatshirt, sweatpants and clear plastic bag of release papers). As Gwynne says: “I just trust my gut.”

Societal acceptance based on reputation and trust is nothing new. In fact reputation was the foundation of nomadic cultures before the advent of farming. Hunter-gatherers were ever vigilant against free-riding and elitism. They viewed both as threatening to the tribe as any predator would be (human or otherwise). They rigidly enforced social rules to ensure that skilled cooperators fared better than self-maximizers. For example, meat was never distributed by whomever made the kill, but by another stakeholder. Enforcement could be by ridicule, shaming, shunning, or even exile. And these practices are still used in modern nomadic tribes.

These socially enforced rules create powerful environmental pressures. This preemptive self-control ends up being the lowest-cost strategy to avoid social penalties. Because “counter-dominant coalitions” punish “alpha-male behavior” (like hogging an unfair share of meat), even powerful members of the tribe abided. Ultimately this becomes kind of a inverted eugenics: eliminate the strong, if they abuse their power.

Shame and guilt enable “self-policed” social norms. Conscious, reputation-based social selection for collaborative activities subsequently became dominant. And those known to have a reputation as poor cooperators would not be selected for joint ventures.

These rules could also apply to governments as a whole. Julian Assange and Edward Snowdon showed us what can happen to a country’s reputation when actions that affect its reputation are taken for granted. Secret cables and emails showed the world United States intelligence services spied on American allies, as well as its diplomats acting out in typical juvenile behavior in what they thought were confidential communications. We’ll never really know how the damage to its reputation has and will affect the United States efforts overseas, diplomatically or economically. Eventually whatever\ you say and do will get out. And too often the consequences aren’t pretty.

Tim Rayner published a brilliant piece describing how reputation can be an effective means of enforcement of the international climate change agreement signed in Paris December of last year. Below is an excerpt:

The review system is more significant than it may appear. Thanks to the transparency created by the system, the entire world will be able to track which countries are contributing to the climate struggle and which countries are failing to do so. Seeing as the world has now committed itself to trying to keep temperature rises below 1.5° above pre-industrial levels, refusing to contribute essentially amounts to giving the finger to the rest of the human race. Such action will carry consequences, political, economic, and otherwise.

On a positive note, the review system will bring the transition leaders to the fore. Countries that work hard to contribute to the zero-carbon goal by making deep cuts to their emissions will stand out for their contributions. In light of the noble cause of averting climate catastrophe, their actions will assume a heightened significance. These cuts are gifts to a future humanity.

This kind of system, where reputation rewards accrue to agents on the basis of their intentional contributions, or gifts, is the hallmark of a gift economy.

The Paris agreement did not create a bureaucratic mechanism for directing global emissions reductions. It created a gift economy based on carbon cuts. This system could work brilliantly, catalyzing a virtuous competition around emissions cuts, while minimizing the political backlash from conservatives. But to make it work, we need to understand how a gift economy operates.

Or we can extrapolate as Toby Barazzuol states: “Climate leadership is about voluntarily holding ourselves to higher standards in ways that inspire others to do the same.”

What if Toby and Tim’s thoughts on climate change accountability transcended to other aspects of human behavior. And what if reputation could take the place of excess enforcement of often arbitrary societal rules designed to benefit special interests rather than the populace. Rather than religiously following the philosophy of Thomas Hobbs (proponent of all encompassing government) and his pessimistic views of humanity with personal self-interest being the root of all our actions … we looked instead to David Hume. Hume’s philosophy was that we enhanced our reputations through actions formed by naturalistic virtues of just “doing the right thing” for the benefit of the whole. He believed we were born with these virtues of benevolence, trust and commitment. This ‘spontaneous order’ did not need to be enforced by a greater overarching power or institution of human or theological making.

The idea of spontaneous order comes from the Scottish Enlightenment, and in particular David Hume who, famously, argued against Thomas Hobbes’ assumption that, without some Leviathan ruling over us (keeping us “all in awe”), we would end up in a hideous State of Nature in which life would be “nasty, brutish and short”. Hume’s counter-argument was that, in the absence of a system of centralized command, conventions emerge that minimize conflict and organize social activities (including production) in a manner that is most conducive to the Good Life.

Steadily, these conventions acquire a moral dimension (i.e. there is a transition from the belief that others will follow the established conventions to the belief that others sought to follow them), they become more evolutionarily stable and, in the end, function as the glue that allows society to be ordered and efficient albeit without any centralized, formal, hierarchy. In short, spontaneous order emerges in the absence of authoritarian hierarchies. (Yanis Varoufakis)

What if how you treated your fellow man – your friends, neighbors and even strangers – counted for more than money, more than the car in the garage and more than the house on the hill. What if having a reputation for benevolence and trust mattered most. What if your contribution to the ‘spontaneous order’ of your community was the mark that was revered to the highest societal degree. And what if taking a step back and learning from the societies of the past was really a step to a new level of wellbeing … one further up the evolutionary ladder.

“Human beings will be happier, not when they cure cancer or get to Mars, but when they find ways to inhabit primitive communities again.” ~ Kurt Vonnegut


If you haven’t, I invite you to start by delving into my ideas by reading the series, On the Road to Your Community’s Perfect World,” This is my articulation of how we can create better, more inclusive, unique communities as the solution to our society’s pressing issues. Consider each week’s post a Mile Marker (MM), a cerebral off-ramp from the highway of your daily routine, taking a you little further down this road to a better version of society.


You can follow me on Twitter at @clayforsberg and on Google+.

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