With First Impressions, Warmth Trumps Competence

Social psychologist Amy Cuddy has received widespread attention for her work in investigating snap judgments, an area on which she’s been focused on since 1998. Interestingly, her most recent research suggests that you can get a lot further by connecting with people than trying to outsmart them.

To glean more about Cuddy’s latest findings and how to seize on them, I called Cuddy today at Harvard Business School, where she teaches courses in power and influence. Our conversation was edited for length.

You believe there are really two critical variables that shape how we view other people. What are they?

It turns out that warmth and competence are two dimensions that account for 80% of our variants in our evaluations of other people. So if you ask someone to rate someone else on warmth and competence, how positive he or she feels about a person will depend almost entirely on these ratings. We think they’re rooted in evolutionary instincts. To evaluate a stranger on these two dimensions in a dark alley, you want to know their intentions –- are they warm, are they trustworthy? –- and whether they are competent, meaning capable of carrying out their intentions.

Your work suggests that we want to correlate warmth and competence. Is that right?

In some situations, they’re negatively correlated, but not all the time. Sometimes you see a halo effect. They seem to be seen as negatively related when you’re comparing two people or groups to each other. We tend to characterize one as competent but cold and the other as warm but incompetent, meaning that a surplus of one implies a deficit on another. So in job interviews, you get down to the last two candidates and the [decision-makers] say, ‘I really like her. She’d be a great community member. But he’s so smart,’ implying that the female candidate is less smart, and implying that the male isn’t so nice, even though there’s no evidence that they’re related in any way. They’re really orthogonal dimensions.

That’s interesting and alarming. So let’s say you can somehow manipulate whether you’re seen as more warm versus more competent. Which do you try to project first, and how do you project it?

What I’m coming to believe, based on our research, is that we’re judging warmth first. People have an intuition about that, but they feel like it goes against the cultural belief that you have to be the smartest person in the room. Especially if you’re talking with MBA students, they overweight the importance of looking tough, and they’re even, to some extent, afraid to show what they see as a softer side.

But it’s about trustworthiness, which I see as a conduit for influence. You can get people to comply or to obey, but you can’t change their private attitudes if they don’t trust you. Another option is to rule through fear, but that’s not a good motivator. In the short run, it might make you effective, but five years later, [your charges] will be gone.

So you advise focusing less on trying to be the smartest one in the room.

Right. I mean, people think that if they’re the smartest one, that the quality of their ideas and their knowledge is going to make them the most effective and influential, but I think that’s not the case unless they also engender trust. Not everyone has to think you’re the nicest person in the world, but active listening, for example, goes really far. Giving someone airtime first and reflecting back to them what they say –- that’s incredibly powerful.

In a business negotiation, I’d bet that three-quarters of people would say that you have to take the floor first and throw out the anchor — and that if you don’t, you’ve given the other side the opportunity to frame everything. But I’d argue that if you let the other side speak first, you’re benefiting in a number of ways. You’re gaining trust, because you’ve taken the time to listen. You’re also gaining information about the other side’s position, which gives you an advantage and that you can reflect back to them, without necessarily agreeing with them.

Who does this really well, in your view?

[Barack] Obama. He’s excellent at this, particularly in how he handles international diplomacy. Many world leaders say he’s the first world leader to do this – to listen and then respond in a much more informed way.

Sarah Palin and some of the Tea Partiers really get this, too. They’re managing to connect with people first and make them feel understood, rather than elevating themselves [above everyone else]. People have to elevate you; you can’t elevate yourself.

If you do make a misstep, is it better to be short on warmth or competence?

When it comes to warmth, negative behaviors are weighted more heavily. If you act like a jerk once, it’s very hard to redeem yourself, because the intuition people have is that you can’t accidentally be a jerk but you can fake being nice. On competence, it’s flipped. Positive competence is weighted more heavily. People reason that you can’t accidentally get a high SAT score, so it’s okay if you can’t sail a boat.

Any other tips you can share about how to connect with people to get what you want?

[Research has shown that] five minutes of chitchat before a negotiation leads to better value creation for both parties, so getting to know someone on a really superficial level is beneficial to both parties. It’s why I tell people that before they walk to meet with a new client or interviewer or venture capitalist to make a pitch to try to engage the person. Try to find a dimension on which you’re similar, because perceived similarity increases liking. Also smiling makes you feel happier, and people naturally mirror you, so that if you’re smiling, they feel happier.

Isn’t there the risk that you’ll seem like a phony?

It can definitely be done in a way that can backfire. I’ve seen students come in and try to do it with me in a way that seems scripted and not very personal. You can end up feeling manipulated, but there are plenty of ways to do it in a natural way.

You also focus on nonverbal cues. How can someone make their body language work to their advantage in a negotiation or interview, after they’ve finished the chit chat?

You need to connect with people first, but you also need to come across as strong and confident, so you need to be expansive. Opening up your body, spreading your limbs and taking up space are all associated with dominance across the animal kingdom, whereas limbs touching your torso are associated in the animal kingdom with low power.

What we show is that if you put people in high-power or low-power positions for two minutes, changes in their endocrine systems take place. In a high-power position, a person’s testosterone levels increase and their levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, decrease, so they feel much more confidant. Meanwhile, low-power positions actually decrease testosterone levels and increase cortisol levels. So the idea that power positions reflect power and dominance is only half the picture. We’re saying that they can actually cause it. And this is true regardless of gender.

It’s pretty amazing that you can configure your brain to deal with a situation by posing.

It is, but this is really important to note: do it before you go into the room. Given that the ideal endocrine profile of a good leader is high testosterone and low cortisol, don’t hunch over your laptop or your iPhone, studying up and making yourself as tiny as possible before you enter a meeting. Make yourself big, walk up and down and hallway, swinging your arms. Women can do it in the bathroom before they get into the interview.

And once you’re in the hot seat?

You don’t need to make yourself huge, but don’t collapse. When people are interacting with a higher power person, you get complementarity, where the powerful person makes himself bigger and the less powerful person collapses inward. So be as big as you are, square off your shoulders, don’t cross your legs away from someone, and if the chair has arms, use them. Oh, and don’t put your hand on your neck or play with your jewelry. It’s a sign of low power.

I’ve heard it said that we’re trying to turn everyone into Gordon Gekkos. But we studied this because we care about the people in the room who aren’t participating. This [work is about] making the powerless more powerful.