The Situationist

Warmth or Competence – Not Both

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 16, 2012

From the Daily Princtonian (an article about a paper co-authored by Situationist Contributor, Susan Fiske):

To appear warm people convey themselves as less competent, and to appear competent people convey themselves as less warm, according to a recent study conducted by a team of researchers in the psychology department.

The study, published by Ph.D. candidate Deborah Holoien GS and psychology professor Susan Fiske, concluded that there is an inherently negative relationship between being perceived as friendly and being perceived as competent. This, Fiske said, causes people to stereotype societal groups — like different ethnic, religious, social or gender groups — based on how warm or competent they appear.

Fiske explained that this trade-off is rooted in evolutionary theory.

“It makes sense because the first thing you need to know about another [is] what their intentions are. If their intentions are good, that means they’re friendly and trustworthy and warm,” Fiske said. “The second thing you need to know is whether they can act on those intentions — whether they’re competent and capable — because if they can’t act on those intentions, they don’t matter to you that much,” she explained.

The study asked participants to draft emails and maintain chat conversations. One group was instructed to try to appear warm, and the other was instructed to appear competent. The selection of words or phrases these participants chose to use had been previously rated by a separate group of participants. The subjects’ choices were then evaluated based on these ratings.

Subjects’ choices indicated that in trying to create a certain impression, they had to sacrifice conveying warmth or competence in order to portray the other.

“When people want to appear warm, they tend to select words that are low in competence,” Holoien explained. “Similarly, when people want to appear very competent, they select words that are low in warmth.”

The paper argues that participants do not intend to convey a lack of one or the other. Yet to appear positively in one dimension, appearing negatively in the other is an unavoidable sacrifice.

This report builds on previous studies conducted by University faculty on the evolution of stereotyping. In trying to avoid stereotyping, people tend to emphasize positive stereotypes of ethnic groups. However, in doing so, the studies found that people are inherently implying the negative stereotype.

“If I say there’s a new immigrant group who’s really nice, the implication is that they’re not smart. If I say there’s an immigrant group who’s really smart, the implication is that they’re not nice,” Fiske explained. “What that means is that you can get away with stereotyping and even negative stereotyping by just accentuating the positive and omitting the negative.”

The two characteristics of warmth and competence determine 80 to 85 percent of impression formation, according to Fiske. In daily interactions, Fiske said, “these are the two key things that need to be communicated.”

This has implications in business strategies and in the workplace. Fiske found that how companies are viewed in light of these two characteristics affects what brands customers choose to purchase.

“Johnson & Johnson and Campbell’s and Hershey’s are seen as American, warm and competent companies, but the energy companies and the cigarette companies are seen as not only incompetent but also bad-intentioned,” Fiske said. “The luxury brands are seen as cold and competent, like Rolex and Porsche. And the U.S. government-subsidized companies like the Post Office and Amtrack are seen as well intentioned but incompetent.”

Holoien said the findings are also relevant for workplace interactions and job interviews, which are largely about first impressions.

Career Peer Advisor Claudine Quadrat ’13 said that the priority for students looking to be hired is to come across as confident in job interviews.

“It’s difficult to say [whether warmth or competence] is more important because you don’t want to be warm without selling anything, but you don’t want to sell in a condescending manner,” Quadrat said. “We definitely try to encourage both.”

Quadrat emphasized that a good manager or team leader commands respect through both warmth and competence rather than just fear or love.

Fiske extended the comparison to the highest elected office in the country.

“It’s clear that these same two dimensions matter to the presidential candidates,” Fiske said. “They have to establish both their competence and their trustworthiness, integrity and warmth. Neither one is sufficient by itself.”

Though the conclusions of this paper and similar studies have not been contradicted, an alternate theory would challenge the trade-off hypothesis. The “Halo Effect” psychological theory argues that people are generally rated positively or negatively on both scales.

Fiske said she hopes to publish her findings in a forthcoming book.

Related Situationist posts:

Image from Flickr.

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One Response to “Warmth or Competence – Not Both”

  1. Callan S. said

    I’d be tempted to suggest others appear either warm or smart, because we are lothe to think of someone else as being both warm and smart. A tall poppy syndrome.

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