It's a puzzler, all right: Would you rather amputate your dominant hand or have a swastika tattooed prominently on your face?
This sample question is just one of several hypothetical scenarios included in a recent psychology study designed to test how much people value their reputation within their community.
Like a game of “Would You Rather” taken to unsettling heights, the newly published study — “Death Before Dishonor: Incurring Costs to Protect Moral Reputation” — is actually a collection of data from four separate studies. Researchers from Florida State University, publishing in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, combined raw numbers from previous research with new small-sample experiments that posed a series of either-or questions and scenarios.
The Nazi-amputation query generated some interesting results. In a survey of 166 university students, both male and female, 70 percent of respondents said they would rather amputate a hand than be permanently branded as a Nazi.
Another question asked whether respondents would rather “die right now” or live into their nineties, but be widely known in the community as a pedophile. Of the 115 volunteer respondents, 53 percent said they would rather die on the spot.
Study co-author Andrew J. Vonasch, now at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said the results suggest that people are far more motivated to protect their reputations than previously thought.
“People are willing to do many things to avoid a bad reputation that other theories might not have predicted,” Vonasch said. “Certainly, we already knew that people cared about their reputations, but this research shows that we care a whole lot about it, and we argue that this is because the self fundamentally serves social purposes.”
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The research was centered on a concept in psychology and sociology that says an individual's survival in a cooperative society can depend greatly on that individual's reputation. Citing previous studies, the paper argues that individuals with poor moral reputations have historically been punished or exiled for their behavior, which gives people strong incentive to protect their reputation.
“A good reputation is like a key that unlocks the benefits provided by society,” the study says. “Getting a bad reputation means losing that key. Because cooperative society is humans’ survival strategy, losing that key is potentially devastating … for most people, banishment from society means death.”
To increase the validity of their findings, the research team designed a series of additional experiments to see how far people were willing to go to protect their reputations in real-world scenarios.
In one experiment, a group of college volunteers took a fake test supposedly designed to assess unconscious attitudes of “implicit racism.” Regardless of responses, the fake test branded the students as racist, and the volunteers were told that the results would be made public to the rest of the university.
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Then the students were told that volunteers were needed for a separate experiment, which required submerging their hands in a bucket of worms. If the volunteer agreed to the worm study, the racism study would be tossed out. Nearly a third of the respondents chose to protect their reputation and go with the worm bucket option.
Vonasch said the research results could have significant implications on existing theories of altruism and motivation. For instance, what looks like altruistic behavior may actually be an effort to protect reputation, which benefits the individual's perceived “fitness” in a cooperative society.
“With respect to altruism, scientists have come up with several reasons why evolution — in which genes are selected purely on the selfish benefit to the organism's reproductive fitness –—could lead to cooperative behavior,” Vonasch said. “We argue that protecting your reputation has important fitness consequences, and this may be one reason the motivation to protect it is so strong.”
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