Prof. Amy Cuddy at the Harvard Business School has done some eye-opening research in the past few years about the ways our primitive brains size up other people. Her findings are rich in lessons for leaders and candidates for office.
Cuddy found that our lower, earliest brain evaluates on two axes everyone we encounter. In her terms, we first decide whether someone is warm — not a threat — or cold — a threat. Second in this almost-instantaneous calculation we decide whether the other person is competent or incompetent to carry out the threat. The calculation is fundamental to how we have survived as a species through the millennia.
It turns out, Cuddy argues from her research, that we value warmth even more than competence. In a finding that upholds a basic irrationality in all humans, our brains are wired to value warmth but we want others to value us for our competence. If you want to read a great book on our human irrationality, pick up Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely, 2008. Prof. Ariely’s work further illustrates the power of cognitive biases in the human decision-making process, which the internationally acclaimed Corridor Conversations has web logged about before and doubtless will again.
Here are some more of Cuddy’s findings and arguments, from an article in Harvard Magazine, (Nov-Dec 2010)
“Warmth—does this person feel warm or cold to me?—is the first and most important interpersonal perception. It no doubt has roots in survival instincts: determining if another human, or indeed any organism, is “friend or foe” can mean life or death.
Warmth is not only perceived first, but accounts for more of someone’s overall evaluation than competence. The warm/cold assessment amounts to a reading of the other’s intentions, positive or negative.
Competence is assayed next: how capable is someone of carrying out those intentions? “If it’s an enemy who’s competent,” Cuddy explains, “we probably want to be vigilant.” Surprisingly, in their self-perceptions, individuals value competence over warmth. “We want other people to be warm, but we want to be competent,” she says. “We’d rather have people respect us than like us.” (Cuddy thinks this human tendency represents a mistaken judgment: “Social connections will take you farther than respect.”)
There’s an interesting asymmetry. Many acts can indicate competence: scoring well on a College Board exam (SAT), for example, or knowing how to handle a sailboat, or deftly navigating through a software application. Demonstrating a single positive-competent behavior tends to broaden into a wider aura of competence: someone with a high SAT score, for example, will be viewed as generally competent. In contrast, a single negative-competent behavior—not knowing how to sail, for example—does not generalize into a perception of overall incompetence: it will simply be dismissed as, say, an unlearned skill. “Positive competence is weighted more heavily than negative competence,” Cuddy summarizes.
With warmth, the inverse applies. Someone who does something nice, like helping an elderly pedestrian across an intersection, is not necessarily seen as a generally nice person. But a single instance of negative-warmth behavior—kicking a dog, say—is likely to irredeemably categorize the perpetrator as a cold person.
In other words, people feel that a single positive-competent, or negative-warmth, act reveals character. “You can purposely present yourself as warm—you can control that,” Cuddy explains. “But we feel that competence can’t be faked. So positive competence is seen as more diagnostic. On the other hand, being a jerk—well, we’re not very forgiving of people who act that way.”
This principle has powerful leverage in public life, where a single misstep in the warmth-negative category can prove fatal. In the 2006 U.S. senatorial campaign in Virginia, for example, Republican incumbent George Allen had a wide lead over challenger Jim Webb, but stumbled at a campaign event in August. Allen singled out a young man in the crowd, S.R. Sidarth, a U.S. citizen of Indian descent, who was filming Allen’s campaign stop as a “tracker” for the Webb campaign: “This fellow over here with the yellow shirt—Macaca, or whatever his name is….” “Macaca” was widely taken as a derogatory racial epithet. Allen’s lead in voter polls tumbled, and Webb won the seat. Another example is the sudden destruction of Hollywood actor Mel Gibson’s image wrought by his alcoholic anti-Semitic rant after being stopped for drunk driving in 2006.
The human tendency to generalize from single perceptions produces the familiar “halo effect,” the cognitive tendency to see people in either all-positive or all-negative ways that psychologists have documented since at least 1920. Certain central traits, like attractiveness, tend to affect perceptions of unrelated dimensions and induce a generally positive take on someone. (“Attractive people are generally seen as better at everything,” says Cuddy.) But the halo effect ‘assumes that you’re not comparing the person to anyone else,’ she adds. ‘And that’s almost never true. Unless you’re a hermit, social comparison is operating all the time.’”
If you lead any humans in attempts to do anything, you will have an opinion on Amy Cuddy’s findings. You might object if you work in a strong command and control-style organization. “I’d rather be feared and/or respected than liked,” you might say. “This is more B School bullshit,” you might sneer if this “warmth” idea pisses you off as well. Yet, we know that people lose IQ points under emotional duress. We know the old saw, “I can’t think straight.” That’s fine if we don’t need our subordinates and colleagues to think straight. Good luck to you and the Red Sox if that is true for you.
Cuddy has found that we get further along all dimensions of leadership if we project warmth and competence. We can’t be insincere. Phoniness makes us look incompetent and cold; others will hold us in contempt. As all the scholars on cognitive bias point out, all this happens in your brain and everyone else’s brain without permission.
In the electoral arena, consider the most recent gubernatorial election in Massachusetts. In his first term. Gov. Deval Patrick managed to piss off every constituent group a little or a lot, from progressives who objected to his early-term preference for Cadillac limos and designer curtains to cops whose earning potential he threatened in several ways. His opponent in 201o was Charles D. Baker Jr., a CEO to the manner born. Republicans and Democrats alike saw Baker as very competent. When he announced in 2009 he was completing a turnaround of the Harvard Pilgrim health insurance corporation. Prior to that he had served with distinction as CFO in the Republican Weld Administration, an administration credited with lots of candlepower and Harvard credentials (but not a commensurate amount to show for them).
Baker also inherited the unneeded benefit of the “Warren Harding Effect,” as articulated by Malcolm Gladwell. He writes in Blink (2005 ) that we unconsciously ascribe competence to tall men who act the part — even to crooks and gross incompetents such as Harding.
So Baker, respected, tall, male, white, inside-track-to-Harvard, child of a prominent government family (C.D. Baker Sr. had been a respected assistant cabinet secretary in both the Nixon and Reagan White Houses) and Harding Effect beneficiary had a lot going for him against the short, black-male, Harding Effect victim, Harvard scholarship student with low favorability.
In their respective TV commercials, Patrick seldom appeared without a retinue of ordinary-people, warm types sitting around him. Baker’s campaign featured him alone, in tie and rolled-up white sleeves, taking command from a stage or other on-high perch. Patrick looked very Warm, and Competent enough. Baker got known as Competent to the max but aloof and above us, pretty Cold.