Social Judgment: Warmth and Competence are Universal Dimensions

How do you make sense of Barack Obama and John McCain? The odds are that you judge them mainly on two dimensions: warm/cold and (in) competence. Depending on your experience of them, you may judge one of them as both warm and competent, evoking your admiration and pride; and perhaps the other as neither warm nor competent, which triggers a sense of contempt and disgust. Or perhaps you view one as warm but not competent, which generates pity and sympathy; or finally, you could judge one of them as cold but competent, leading to feelings of resentment and even envy. All the media hoopla boils down to these two dimensions, which determine the outcomes of Presidential campaigns, but also our ordinary perceptions of other people as individuals or as group members.

Judging people based on warmth and competence

Think back to the last time that you met someone for the first time. What aspects of her or his personality are more important to you? Was the person friendly and trustworthy, with good intentions, or not? Did the person seem able to act on those intentions? The two aspects boil down to  warmth and  competence. Why might these two dimensions appear everywhere the same basis for making sense of other people? One possibility is that these are the two most essential and adaptive aspects to know, for survival’s sake. If you agree with Charles Darwin's main notion that all animals (humans included) come from millions of years of evolution and natural selection, and if you also go along with evolutionary explanations of human behavior, you might credit the idea that we have to understand other people based primarily on  warmth and  competence because  warmth reveals intentions for good or ill and  competence reveals the ability to act on those intentions. Traits such as friendliness, helpfulness, sincerity, trustworthiness, and morality reflect  warmth; and  competence appears as intelligence, skill, creativity, and efficacy. So, if you meet someone for the first time, you spontaneously look for clues pointing to the person’s good (or bad) intentions (i.e.,  warmth) and ability (or inability) to act on these intentions (i.e.,  competence). Years ago, Rosenberg and his colleagues (1968) examined scores of personality descriptions, and their statistical analyses suggested two primary dimensions of social perception: social good-bad ( warmth) and intellectual good-bad ( competence). More recent psychology supports this conclusion. Bogdan Wojciszke, studying how people understand others, has found that  warmth and  competence together determine more than 80 percent of our impression of others (Wojciszke, 2005Wojciszke & Klusek, 1996).

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