People are willing to go to great lengths to preserve their reputations, a study has confirmed. As such, scientists think that making huge sacrifices to protect one's reputation may be fundamental to human nature.

Humans are perhaps one of the most cooperative species. Most of our survival depends on our ability to cooperate well with others, working together to obtain food, shelter or protection from common enemies.

But cooperation can be problematic as some individuals might act as free-riders, threatening to undermine the benefits of cooperation for others. To avoid these antisocial behaviours and incentivise honest cooperation, humans keep track of each other's' reputation.

Reputation is a way to judge if a person is an adequate social partner. Losing one's reputation thus makes it trickier to access the benefits provided by cooperation, so it is crucial to preserve it.

Stories of individuals who have died to protect their honour and their reputation are common in history and literature. These people are often depicted as exceptional cases, but given the importance of reputation to cooperate effectively with others, researchers wondered whether they were truly unique. They investigated this issue in a study now published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

"Throughout history, people have occasionally chosen death rather than dishonor – but are these people exceptional, or were they normal people in abnormal circumstances requiring them to make the ultimate sacrifice?" the scientists write.

"The present research tested whether these (perhaps rare and unusual) historical examples of individuals making great sacrifices to protect reputation might indicate a more fundamental truth about humanity: Many ordinary people are willing to make large sacrifices to protect their reputations."

The researchers conducted a number of different investigations. They first tested the relative importance of moral reputation compared to other values from people in 100 countries. Then, they set up a collection of online mini-studies asking people to make hypothetical choices between loss of reputation and other major costs such as jail-time, amputation, and death.

They found that maintaining a moral reputation was one of people's most important values in most countries. A majority of people also reported preferring jail time, amputation of limbs, and death to various forms of reputation damage such as becoming known as a criminal, a Nazi, or child molester.

Lab experiments

For obvious ethical reasons, these results cannot be tested experimentally - you can't actually damage someone's reputation or cut their arms off. Nevertheless, the researchers were able to set up interesting lab experiments to show how much reputation mattered to people. They tested whether study participants would put themselves in a painful or disgusting situation to preserve their reputations.

Confronted with the threat of a dissemination of information suggesting that they were racist, 30% of people fully submerged their hands in a pile of live worms, and 63% endured physical pain to prevent it from happening. These figures are quite high and suggest that people highly value their reputations and are likely to take extreme steps to prevent it from being damaged.

"Such strong motivations to avoid reputation damage may explain several otherwise puzzling social phenomena. For example, individuals and organisations pay large sums of hush money to keep their indiscretions private (...) People commit suicide rather than face public disgrace and humiliation, even when they are otherwise psychologically healthy," the authors conclude.

"Taken together, the present findings indicate that people are profoundly motivated to maintain a reputation as a morally good person, not only during their lives but even after they die. This motivation is further evidence of the fundamentally social nature of the human self."