The Psyche on Automatic

This month’s Harvard Magazine profiles social psychologist Ann Cuddy, who teaches at Harvard Business School, and writes about two critical values in how people perceive and categorize others–warmth and competence.  Sound familiar?  As the article notes,

“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…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?”

The article is fascinating as Cuddy has researched the interplay between these factors, how the halo effect is created, and the tension that exists.  She writes that, “people tend to see warmth and competence as inversely related.  If there’s a surplus of one, they infer a deficit of the other.”   

On the job, many studies have shown that working moms are seen as both significantly nicer—and significantly less competent—than working fathers or childless men and women. “We call this the ‘motherhood penalty,’ ” says Cuddy. “At the same time, fathers experience the ‘fatherhood bonus.’ They’re viewed as nicer than men without kids, but equally, if not more, competent. They’re seen as heroic: a breadwinner who goes to his kid’s soccer game once in a while. But in or out of the office, working mothers experience a fair bit of hostility from people who think they should be at home with their kids. Researchers have documented thousands of cases of motherhood discrimination; a mother being laid off might hear things like, ‘I know you wanted to be at home anyway.'”

There is much more in the article having to do with negotiation–body language, treatment of “out” groups, etc. and a summary will not do the article justice so here is the link to the whole piece.  My earlier blog on the warmth or likability v. competence choice is linked here and my article on how lawyers seem to fare with this dichotomy is linked here.

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