Reputation and Social Mechanisms : A Comment on Origgi’s “A Social Epistemology of Reputation”, Gianluca Manzo

Author Information: Gianluca Manzo, GEMASS–CNRS and University of Paris-Sorbonne,

Manzo, Gianluca. 2013. “Reputation and Social Mechanisms: A Comment on Origgi’s ‘A Social Epistemology of Reputation’.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2 (5): 45-50.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

Please refer to: Origgi, Gloria. 2012. “A Social Epistemology of Reputation.” Social Epistemology 26 (3-4): 399-418.

Origgi’s penetrating outlook on social life, combined with her deep knowledge of several streams of literature in economics, sociology and philosophy makes “A Social Epistemology of Reputation” a brilliant piece of work. Origgi’s article develops a general theoretical framework for studying the emergence and function of reputational hierarchies and dynamics in complex societies.

On my reading, the originality of this framework arises from Origgi implicitly posing two related, but analytically distinct, types of questions. On the one hand, the first part of the essay reviews the social science literature on reputation and addresses “how-questions” in that it sketches some basic mechanisms that may lead a given actor (social object or institution) to possess a given amount of reputation. In particular, Origgi focuses on the social and cultural embeddedness of our reputational judgments that leads Origgi to conceive reputation as a “relational/social property”. On the other hand, in the second part of the essay, Origgi addresses a “function-question” in that she describes the role that reputation plays for actors’ apprehension of the social world. In this respect, Origgi’s main argument is that reputation should be considered as an epistemic device, i.e. a cognitive shortcut through which actors process and acquire information about the social world when, in particular, they are over-whelmed by information and when the properties relevant to act are difficult to observe. According to Origgi, the cognitive purpose served by reputation explains its omnipresence in social life as well as the success of recent web-based technologies that exploit the power of reputation as a cognitive shortcut.

From my point of view, that of a sociologist interested in the formal modeling of complex micro- and network-based mechanisms leading to (sometimes less) complex macro-level patterns (see, for instance, Manzo 2013), the theoretical lenses proposed by Origgi are powerful. In the following, I elaborate upon them with the modest aim to make the analytical bases of Origgi’s theoretical framework even more fruitful. First, I suggest that the analysis of the generative mechanisms of actors’ reputation would gain generality if one accepts to consider reputation as an individual-level property with semi-relational bases rather than as a fully relational property as Origgi proposes. This point concerns the “how-questions” side of Origgi’s analysis. Second, I take up the “function-question” side of Origgi’s analysis. In particular, I suggest that Origgi’s understanding of reputation as an epistemic device can be connected to recent psychological research on heuristic-based decision-making, thus opening new opportunities to push further the analysis of the generative mechanism of reputation as well as that of social mechanisms more generally.

Reputation as an individual-level property with semi-relational bases

To address the first point, let me consider as working examples two world-widely commented scandals from recent French politics. On May 14, 2011, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, at that time the director of the International Monetary Fund and still unofficial but very probable candidate to the 2012 French presidential election, was imprisoned in New York on a charge of sexual assault. More recently, on March, 19, 2013, Jérôme Cahuzac, the French Budget minister, resigned because of formal investigations undertaken by French judges to ascertain the existence of foreigner bank accounts that he may have used to avoid paying taxes in France.

These two affairs, whose political consequences and judicial details are not of interest here, share one fundamental element; namely, the abrupt, dramatic reputation breakdown that both Mr Strauss-Kahn and Mr Cahuzac experienced in France as soon as their behaviour(s) was publicly advertised. No matter how deeply rooted the idea that they had special intellectual and professional qualities; no matter how long they had patiently been building cross-cutting social circles in the political, economic, and media sectors; no matter how authoritative the personalities that gauged for them — it is realistic to assume that the majority of people informed about their misbehaviours instantaneously felt a sense of indignation and judged that their conduct was unacceptable and in deep contradiction with the functions that they were serving. This sudden, dramatic change in Mr Strauss-Kahn’s and Mr Cahuzac’s reputation in a large sector of the population was without a doubt taken into account by a part of the political, economic, and media elites that, in order not to be infected by the bad reputation newly acquired by the two politicians, quickly publicly withdrew their support to them, a symbolic sanction that in turn contributed further to depress Mr Strauss-Kahn’s and Mr Cahuzac’s reputation.

Mr Strauss-Kahn’s and Mr Cahuzac’s reputation trajectories provide interesting cases because they suggest that reputation can be acquired or destroyed even on the basis of single, purely individualistic act. In both cases, the sequence of events suggests that the two politicians did not lose their reputation because they lost the social ties that previously fuelled their reputation. On the contrary, they lost these social ties because they devastated their reputation in the public opinion’s eyes on the basis of a single action that goes excessively beyond the tolerable misbehaviours (giving the existing formal norms and/or the current political context).

These cases draw our attention to the fact that it may be conceptually inconvenient exclusively, or excessively, to focus on the relational bases of reputational dynamics. To be sure, as Origgi insists throughout her paper, social interactions are fundamental ingredients of the mechanisms generating actors’ reputation. It is within these interactions that actors’ behaviours and evaluations of other actors’ behaviours are exchanged, distorted and crystallized. Without actors’ actions, however, social interactions would not have any raw material on which to operate. That is why, in my opinion, from the perspective of the analysis of the generative mechanisms of reputation, neither relations nor actions should be given analytical priority. Actions and interactions, choices and ties, co-produce at the micro-level the reputational dynamics that we observe at the macro-level. Our task should be to detail the temporal and causal sequences of actions and interactions that brought about a given reputational outcomes.

In contrast, when we move from the analysis of the mechanisms generating a given amount of reputation to the “owner” of this amount, there are good explicit reasons to qualify reputation as an individual-level property rather than, as Origgi proposes, as a relational/social property. To understand why, let us go back to Mr Strauss-Kahn’s (or to Mr Cahuzac’s) case.

Let us imagine that Mr Strauss-Kahn, in order to re-build his life on an entirely new basis, would be able to destroy magically all his past and current social connections and leave Paris for a small island located in the Solomon Islands archipelago (in the South-Western Pacific Ocean). The counter-factual question here is: would Strauss-Kahn’s reputation survive and exist independently from the web of social connections that partly contributed first to create and then to destroy this reputation? My answer is “yes” provided that at least one piece of information concerning Strauss-Kahn affair reach at least one of his new neighbours. In this case, Strauss-Kahn’s past behaviour and the negative symbols likely to be associated to this behaviour would be activated again even though the social connections that processed in the past Strauss-Kahn’s sexual conducts are completely absent from the new social context.

This “shadow-of-the-past” effect suggests that actors are the owners of their reputation in the sense that this reputation potentially survives the complex relational context that contributed to generate it at a given point in time. Great thinkers’ or artists’ fame constitutes the extreme example of the capacity of actors’ reputation to travel across time and space well far beyond the frontiers of the interaction process that contributed to generate one’s thinker or artist reputation during his life. Many people believe that Marx, Freud or Einstein are iconic thinkers deserving recognition and respect, even though the vast majority of these people knows virtually nothing about the complex myriad of deferential exchanges that led these authors to secure a great reputation during their scientific career. Actors’ own their reputation, not the social ties that contributed to generate it.

In a nutshell, my argument can be summarized as follows. With respect to its generative mechanisms, an actor’s (object’s or institution’s) reputation emerges from complex dynamic bundles of actions and interactions. Thus, there is no reason a priori to emphasize the relational side over the individual side. On the contrary, with respect to the unit of analysis to which reputation belongs, actors should be given priority. The fact that an actor’s reputation can survive the specific relational context that contributed to generate this reputation — the “shadow-of-the-past” effect as I called it — suggests that, once it came to existence, reputation is a property of the actor, not of the ties in which the actor is embedded. That is why we gain generality and analytical power by framing reputation as an individual-level property with semi-relational bases.

Reputation as social heuristic

My second point concerns Origgi’s understanding of the cognitive function of reputation. In this respect, I suggest that Origgi’s interpretation of reputation as an epistemic device, i.e. a cognitive shortcut to treat information quickly and efficiently, can greatly benefit the analysis of the generative mechanisms of reputation and, more generally, of social mechanisms, if an explicit connection is established with the so-called “fast-and-frugal heuristic” research program in psychology (for an overview see Gigerenzer et al. 2011). The general goal of this research program is to develop a theoretical alternative to decision theories that frame actors’ action as a (more or less sophisticated) computation over (more or less complex) series of (subjectively) weighted options. By rejecting logic and probability theory as the benchmarks to be used to assess and to frame actors’ rationality and decision making (see Gigerenzer, 2008; see Hertwig & Herzog 2009), Gigerenzer and co-authors propose instead to model actors’ choices in terms of heuristics — a heuristic being “a strategy that ignores part of the information, with the goal of making decisions more quickly, frugally, and/or accurately than more complex methods” (Gigerenzer and Gaissmaier 2011, 454).

Thus, when Origgi claims that “reputation serves the cognitive purpose of making us navigate among things and people whose value is opaque for us because we do not know enough about them” (411) and that reputation should be conceived as “… a criterion of information extraction, a fundamental shortcut for cumulating knowledge that is embedded in social networks and an ineludible filter to access facts” (416), then Origgi is implicitly conceiving reputation as a “social” heuristic (see Gigerenzer 2008, 31), i.e. a rule-of-thumb relying on others’ behavior/properties to handle choice settings characterized by uncertainty.

To frame reputation as a social heuristic seems fruitful because this understanding of reputation can be used to model some aspects of the micro-level dynamics that lead to reputational hierarchies presenting high levels of status inequality. In particular, if one accepts the assumption that there is a connection between the intrinsic quality of an actor (or an object) and the amount of reputation that he (it) is likely finally to obtain, then one may assume that, as long as the actor’s (object’s) quality is not easily observable, actors partly rely on the positive/negative evaluations that others’ actors gave the actor/objet under scrutiny in the past, i.e. the actor’s/object’s reputation at t-n.

At the macroscopic level, this interdependence among actors’ assessments of others’ quality is likely to create a dynamic in which those whose quality is initially positively evaluated will be more and more positively evaluated whereas those who are initially poorly evaluated will be increasingly negatively sanctioned thus creating the condition for high level of status inequality among actors/objects. In terms of heuristic, the use of actors’/objects’ past reputation quickly to assess their current quality is an instance of the so-called “imitate-the-majority” heuristic according to which actors adopt the most frequent behaviour/judgment within the group to determine their own behaviour/judgment (see Gigerenzer 2008: 31, Gigerenzer et al. 2011, 17).

Origgi implicitly uses this heuristic when she analyses aesthetic judgments. In particular, she claims: “When we look for indirect cues in order to express an evaluative judgment on a work of art (but also on the taste of a wine and other aesthetic experiences), one of the most informative cues is the reputation of the imaginary interlocutors of the artists” (415). Here, Origgi uses a variant of the “imitate-the-majority” heuristic that we may name “imitate-the-qualified-majority” heuristic. In this case, one does not follow all the actors assessing (or having a connection with) the actor/object under scrutiny, but only the subset of these actors that one regards for some reason as the relevant source of information. In other words, the social composition or, more generally, the heterogeneity of the “majority” matters. Without using the name, Granovetter and Soong (1988) already referred to this use of actors’ reputation when they proposed the hypothesis that, when choosing, for instance, if a given restaurant deserves the client’s attention, one partly relies on the number of relevant clients that already entered the restaurant (Chinese client for a Chinese restaurant, for instance).

The understanding of reputation as a social heuristic also looks promising because the environmental cues contained in actors’/objects reputation can be combined with several other heuristics that usually are not associated with reputation thus opening new research avenues for the analysis of social mechanisms in general.

Let me first consider the “imitate-the-successful” heuristic (see Gigerenzer et al. 2011; 17, 216) according to which actors are assumed to follow the choice/judgment of a single actor. How to determine the outstanding individual, however? In game theory, one usually assumes that actors are capable to survey the pay-offs of all others actors thus figuring out the player who obtained the highest reward (McKenzie 2007, 38-39). Reputation is a useful cue to solve this problem in a different way. In many social domains, given the social group actors regard as reference point, actors almost spontaneously know what the place to be, the product to buy, or the friend/colleague to follow/cite is. Thus, when actors’/objects’ reputation is used as a social cue, the “imitate-the-successful” heuristic translate into an “imitate-the-most-popular” heuristic, which is likely to shed light on a wide range of choice settings.

The “recognition” and the “fluency” heuristics provide a couple of additional interesting examples. Here, actors are assumed to make inferences on the property of interest on the basis of the cognitive salience of the options under scrutiny. Basically, the more recognizable the option (“recognition” heuristic), the faster the recognition (“fluency” heuristic), the more the option is likely to be positively evaluated (see Gigerenzer and Gaissmaier 2011, 460-463). What determines the options’ cognitive salience, however? As actors’/objects’ good/bad reputation is likely to increase/decrease actors’/objects’ social visibility, it seems reasonable to consider that reputation is a powerful cognitive salience trigger. Reputation-based “recognition” and “fluency” heuristics should thus be considered as important forms of heuristic-based decision making enriching our “mechanismic” toolbox.

Concluding Remarks

When reputation is conceived as a cognitive shortcut to quickly filter information, Origgi suggests, in the conclusion of her stimulating essay, the future of the social epistemology of reputation should be about “to pry apart the biases worth keeping from those worth eliminating” (417). It is interesting to note that this program for future research echoes one the main goal of the “fast-and-frugal” heuristic research program that I have evoked in the previous section. Part of Gigerenzer and co-author’s research effort is indeed precisely devoted systematically to study the conditions under which a given heuristic lead to optimal decisions (in the sense of decisions that are adapted to the context in which the actor acts). A complementary research agenda would consist in the systematic analyses of the micro- and macro-level consequences generated by reputation-based heuristic decision-making. The combination of normative and explanatory points of view seems necessary here because it may be a waste of resource to attempt to eradicate biases whose micro- and macro-level consequences are proved to be normatively tolerable. Thus, we can imagine a fruitful division of the intellectual labour in which empirically-oriented scholars study (partly, by means of formal models) the micro- and macro-level patterns likely to be generated when specific reputation-based heuristic are at work whereas normatively-oriented scholars explain why these patterns may be regarded as problematic thus requiring a modification of the underlying decision-making process.


Alexander, J. McKenzie. 2007. The structural evolution of morality. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Gigerenzer, Gerd. 2008. Rationality for Mortals: How people cope with uncertainty. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gigerenzer, Gerd and Wolfgang Gaissmaier. 2011. “Heuristic decision making.” Annual Review of Psychology 62: 451-482.

Gigerenzer, Gerd, Ralph Hertwig and Thorsten Pachur, editors. 2011. Heuristics: The foundations of adaptive behavior. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Granovetter, Mark and Roland Soong. 1988. “Threshold Models of Diversity: Chinese Restaurants, Residential Segregation and the Spiral of Silence.” Sociological Methodology 18: 69-104.

Hertwig, Ralph and Stefan M. Herzog. 2009. “Fast and Frugal Heuristics: Tools of Social Rationality.” Social Cognition 27 (5): 661–698.

Manzo, Gianluca. 2013. “Educational Choices and Social Interactions: A Formal Model and A Computational Test.” Comparative Social Research 30: 47-100.

Origgi, Gloria. 2012. “A Social Epistemology of Reputation.” Social Epistemology 26 (3-4): 399-418.

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