How Others Judge You

Two factors driving social acceptance

Posted Jan 31, 2016

The need for acceptance is fairly high on our list of social priorities. It’s driven by a number of different factors, some primal—like not wanted to be rejected by the pack—and, others, more prosaic—like wanting to sit at the cool kids table. Either way, what we want is really of no moment. What is more important is how others see us, or, more to the point, how they receive us, and what they do with that.

Harvard psychologist Amy Cuddy and her colleagues, Susan Fiske and Peter Glick, have been studying initial interactions, or what we commonly refer to as first impressions, for more than 15 years. In that time, some distinct patterns have presented themselves and, in her new book, Presence, she describes two key factors that influence the manner in which others immediately receive us.

She proposes that, when we first encounter another person, we ask two questions—and, of course, they ask the same questions of us: “Can I trust this person?” and “Can I respect this person?” The features revealed by these interrogatives are referred to as warmth and competence, respectively. Cuddy suggests that most of us believe competence to be the more important factor in social interchange. In fact, warmth, or, more properly, trustworthiness, is considerably more important than competence for establishing a strong social bond.

We want feel assured that someone can step up, do the job, be effective or what have you, particularly in a professional setting—that’s competence. More important, however, is the feeling that we can trust that person, and how that trust plays into our perception of competence. This interplay actually moves us away from the more prosaic influences on the need for acceptance and pushes us back into the primal—is this person going to keep our kill for himself and abandon me in the forest, or is he going to help me build a shelter, start a fire and share?

To that point, Cuddy points out that competence is most highly valued only after trust has been established. Playing to our strengths without first establishing the rapport that leads to trust can bring us an outcome very different than the one we expect. Proficiency needs to be balanced against engagement to be recognized as valuable, and worthy of admiration.

© 2016 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved

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