In the last 30 years, the behavioral community has documented a myriad of quirks of altruism: we display warm glow; we’re weirdly sensitive to defaults and communication around norms, frames, and identity; we give readily, but are even quicker to exploit moral wiggle room or avoid the ask in the first place; we give most readily when observed.
In the meantime, as a recent review by Todd Rogers, Noah Goldstein, and Craig Fox documents, our community of nudgers has seized upon the opportunity afforded by these scientific advances by developing, testing, and disseminating a plethora of practical and effective interventions for promoting good deeds.
If warm glow is built to promote our reputation, then it should be triggered when we give.
Motivated by the literature on the evolution of cooperation, we at the Applied Cooperation Team at Yale University add to these scientific advances by taking seriously the contention that humans’ altruistic preferences are (largely subconsciously) shaped by reputational motives. This view contrasts with the standard behavioral approach, which emphasizes psychological benefits, like assuaging self-image concerns. By “reputational motive,” we mean the material rewards that come from being seen as a good citizen or a giving person, which in turn lead to more, and better, relationships. Of course, such reputational motives need not be conscious. They can even become deeply internalized, to the point where they can be triggered by subconscious cues of reputational benefits (like images of eyespots).
We think this perspective adds a great deal.
For starters, it helps explain why altruism has the quirks that it does. If warm glow is built to promote our reputation, then it should be triggered when we give. If communication around norms, frames, and identity provides useful information about the reputational impact of giving, we should respond to it. If we can avoid taking a reputational hit by exploiting moral wiggle room or avoiding the ask, we will. And, obviously, if we’re being observed—and our good deeds have the potential to be rewarded—then we’ll give more.
To emphasize: There’s no sense in which we need be aware of the role reputations are playing for our altruistic preferences to display these quirks. The role of reputation can be, and usually is, hidden underneath the emotions and ideologies that we experience as motivating us to give.
We also start to see the relationship between a myriad of nudges. No longer do identity appeals, descriptive norms, and public-good frames seem so different—they are all examples of interventions that communicate information about the reputational impact of giving. Moral wiggle room and avoiding the ask (as well as strategic ignorance and moral distancing) become examples of a single phenomenon as well: they prevent transgressions from being commonly known, and thus make it more difficult for them to negatively affect our reputations. Defaults and opt-outs? They kill both these birds with one stone.
No longer do identity appeals, descriptive norms, and public-good frames seem so different—they are all examples of interventions that communicate information about the reputational impact of giving.
Finally, we gain clarity on why nudges work well, when they’ll work best, and how they’ll interact. Once we consider the central role of reputations, we no longer wonder that observability so often has such a huge impact, and we immediately see that its impact will be greater the more highly we value our relationship with observers. A descriptive norm can complement an observability intervention but substitute for an identity appeal.
In my recent TEDx Talk, I use our team’s “reputations” lens to present the plethora of prosocial nudges as a simple, actionable, three-item checklist, illustrating each item on the checklist with examples from the behavioral literature. The individual interventions I present are not new—indeed, many date back a decade or more. But, hopefully, you’ll agree that the reputations lens makes it easier to understand and use the burgeoning behavioral literature to promote altruism.