Main content start

The Trouble with Invisible Men: How Reputational Concerns Motivate Generosity

Matthew Feinberg
Kyle Irwin
Michael Schultz
Brent Simpson
The Handbook of the Sociology of Morality

Traditionally, research on the causes of prosocial behavior – acts that benefit others, often at a cost to the self – has focused on the role of either material incentives or altruistic motivations in fostering generosity. Here, we review research on a third class of explanation based on reputation. In recent years, research on the interplay between prosocial behavior and reputation has drawn the attention of researchers from disciplines as diverse as economics, psychology, sociology, anthropology, and biology, along the way establishing complex, reciprocal links between reputational standing and generosity. Here, we review some promising strains of research in this area, focusing on the dynamics of reputational gain as a reward encouraging prosociality, how reputation systems are maintained in groups, and evolutionary models relating reputation and prosocial behavior. This review establishes that (1) individuals receive diverse social and material benefits for developing a reputation as a generous person, (2) these rewards for prosocial behavior influence decisions to behave prosocially in at least two theoretically distinct ways, (3) reputational differentiation, in terms of status, structures contributions to group efforts in ways that can make groups more productive, (4) reputations are critical to the maintenance of informal, social sanctioning systems, (5) reputation systems are maintained in part because individuals spontaneously share information on others’ past levels of prosocial behavior, and (6) reputational dynamics may have encouraged the evolution of prosociality via biological and/or cultural evolution.