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Francesca Giardini: how do reputation and gossip bring about and sustain cooperative relationships?

How do reputation and gossip bring about and sustain cooperative relationships?

Everybody has a reputation. Individuals, groups, communities, companies and also countries have reputations. Some of these shared evaluations are based on casual conversations about other people’s actions, like gossip, whereas other evaluation, like in online systems, are based on the aggregation of some measurable variables. From small villages all over the world, to online marketplaces and service providers, individuals rely on knowledge about others’ behaviour as a reliable and useful indication of their ability and willingness to help. The most common way to transmit information about others is gossip, which is defined as an evaluative talk about an absent third party. Notwithstanding its negative reputation, gossip has been linked to several positive functions, from social comparison to bonding, and to the enforcement of social norms in the group. People are concerned about their reputations and evidence from the lab and the field shows that when actions are visible, more prosocial choices are made. When reputations are at stake, individuals change their behaviour in domains as environmentally friendly choices, social mobilization, and donations to charities.

Francesca Giardini

However, the overall efficacy of reputations in fostering prosocial behaviour is still a matter of debate. A recent example of this is the Weinstein case. In 2017, the New York Times published a story detailing more than 20 years of allegations of sexual harassment against him. It quickly emerged that he had a long-established reputation for such behaviour in the movie industry. Although this was known to many, it took a long time before his global reputation suffered for it. How did Weinstein manage his reputation in such a way that he could get away with his misdeeds without being punished?

How are reputations created and transformed through gossip, and how do people manage their own reputations?

In my research I am interested in understanding the dynamics of reputation spreading. I combine cognitive and sociological theories with the aim of understanding when individuals care about their reputations, how this can be used to motivate cooperative behaviours, and in which way gossip contributes to reputation building and destruction. Regarding the latter point, our research showed that individuals prefer to use the formulation “someone told me” when reporting false information instead of saying that they personally acquired that information. This shows sophisticated reputation management skills. In another experiment, we showed that negative reputations, even very minimal ones, expressed with a simple ranking system, affect individuals’ choices. I also use computational methods to study the dynamics of gossip, in order to understand how the network structure, the consequences of gossip on individuals’ payoffs, and the presence of retaliation might explain the delay with which the behaviour of Weinstein was reported.

F. (Francesca) Giardini, PhD
First name
Associate professor
Francesca uses theoretical analysis, agent-based modeling and lab experiments to investigate the mechanisms of social sustainability. She is interested in gossip and reputation based governance and she is also working on risk communication and disaster resilience.
She is the co-editor of the Oxford Handbook of Gossip and Reputation (2019), and she has published in different disciplinary and inter-disciplinary journals, including Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, JASSS, PLOS One, and Scientific Reports.
Last modified:03 September 2019 1.53 p.m.
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