How do you form your impressions of others? What qualities count most? What characteristics are deemed fundamental to identity?

Researchers Goodwin, Piazza and Rozin, of the University of Pennsylvania, considered two categories of personality traits. A sociable, happy, agreeable, funny and playful person was considered “warm.” By contrast, a courageous, fair, principled, responsible and honest person was considered “moral.”

Their study, in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, concludes that morality beats social warmth in impression formation. A person’s moral character is considered to be more fundamental to their identity than whether they are warm. Overall, people thought of as having good moral character are viewed more positively than those thought of as warm.

Moral character is central to how people judge one another in important matters, such as relationships and competence. When someone is fair and honest, we believe that it is a quality that constitutes their very essence. Warmth may come and go, but moral character is more consistent and reliable. Goodwin shows that most think that being responsible and principled is more important than friendliness or having a sense of humor.

This makes sense. While being with a warm person may make us feel good in the moment, these qualities are distinct from those that lead to long-term relationships where we need to be able to count on someone for both safety and support.

This is clear when dealing with professionals. Given a choice between a good-humored doctor or an honest one few would hesitate in choosing the latter. While jokes from the pulpit may lighten an otherwise dull sermon, congregants prefer someone who speaks honestly and can hold their secrets tightly.

The same preference for character over warmth plays out in close relations. Having fun is important, warm feelings are good feelings but when our fates are intimately tied to others, being able to count on a person’s word and to trust another person with your very soul is more important. It would be good to have a fun time with a friend, but a friend who you can count on no matter what is far more valuable.

Warmth and morality generally make a good team, but this research concludes that of the two qualities morality is more fundamental because it is more important to us as social creatures.

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