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In Judging Others, Warmth Trumps Competence. But Should It?

One's intent is more important than their ability to accomplish their intent.

Key points

  • When appraising others, we tend to value their warmth over their competence.
  • Our tendency to value warmth over competence may be an evolved adaptation.
  • For our ancestors, choosing correctly on the warmth dimension may have been more consequential than getting competence right.

When appraising people, what do you look for? What features of someone’s presence factor most heavily in your judgment of them? Converging research findings from multiple lines of inquiry have pointed to two prominent dimensions used to make judgments of other individuals and groups. The first is called warmth, and it refers to one’s appraised intent and disposition, their trustworthiness and sociability—are they friendly? The second is called competence, and it refers to our appraisal of another’s abilities, their agency—their capabilities to carry out their intents. (Similar dimensions have been shown to guide our appraisal of animals and robots).

You can see why these two traits are important for us to appraise early. Our ancestors benefitted from an ability to tell friend from foe, and the related ability to assess whether friends and foes are likely to be competent or inept.

Research has shown that these simple appraisals shape our judgment of both groups and individuals. Generally, different combinations of warmth and competence give rise to different emotional reactions. For example, people and groups judged to be both warm and competent (e.g., Canadians) may invoke feelings of admiration. Those judged as competent yet cold (e.g., rich tech guys) are likely to provoke feelings of envy; those who are high on warmth but low on competence tend to elicit sympathy (children), and those who are low on both counts (the homeless) may encounter contempt. Such warmth and competence stereotypes, mostly based on socioeconomic status and age, are shared cross-culturally.

Warmth versus competence

Warmth and competence judgments are socially consequential, yet they may operate differently for different social groups. For example, research has shown that when working women become mothers, they lose perceived competence and gain perceived warmth. Working men, on the other hand, don't experience this shift, gaining both competence and warmth upon becoming fathers. Since competence predicts better employability, working mothers’ gains in warmth do not help them work-wise, whereas their loss in perceived competence hurts their job prospects.

Source: Geralt/Pixabay
Source: Geralt/Pixabay

Given the importance of these two dimensions to our social cognition, the question arises as to which of them is more important. Research has shown that by and large, warmth is rated higher than competence in our overall evaluation of individuals and groups. In other words, when evaluating potential relationships, we tend to appraise a warm and incompetent person more positively than a cold and competent one. Why would that be?

Traditionally, scholars have argued that warmth is weighted more heavily because it is more consequential to one’s welfare than is competence. That someone is very friendly, goes the argument, is inherently more helpful to your survival odds than that someone is very competent. in other words, “people’s intention to help or harm has a larger effect on an observer’s welfare than does their ability to do so effectively.”

This explanation, however, leaks in several ways. For one, it assumes that other people’s intentions are inherently more impactful than their competence. But this need not necessarily be so. “In principle, the impact of people’s behavior is the product of their intentions and their ability to carry out their intentions, much as a serving of pie is a product of both the size of the entire pie and the relative share of the slice being served.” In other words, warmth and competence determine one person’s effect on another together, and thus could, in theory, be equally consequential.

In a recent (2022) paper, the researchers Adar Eisenbruch (Marist College) and Max Krasnow (Harvard) offer a new explanation. They argue that warmth is valued more highly than competence not because it is inherently more important for survival but because “ancestral humans faced greater variance in the warmth of potential cooperative partners than in their competence but greater variance in competence over time within cooperative relationships.” In other words, warmth proved more predictive than competence for the future of a relationship not due to its inherent superior value, but due to how it was distributed.

The authors argue that in choosing partners, our ancestors faced greater variance (differences) in potential partners’ warmth than in their competence. The variability in warmth was the byproduct of our complex social organization, the tendency to live in “multimale, multifemale groups that frequently include close kin, distant and affinal kin, and nonkin.” This human tendency created “exceptional opportunities for alliances and support and for rivalries and conflict.” While the range in competence runs from high to low, the range of warmth runs all the way from high positive to high negative. Given this wide variability, a bad choice is bound to differ much from a good choice. Picking correctly on the warmth dimension is more important than picking correctly on competence, where differences between candidates were not as wide and consequential.

Once in a relationship, however, a partner’s competence is more likely to vary dramatically than their warmth. For one, “ancestral productive skill was likely domain-specific (e.g., someone who was skilled at hunting may not also be skilled at kin care or tool production), which produces variance between domains of cooperation.” Moreover, “many important forms of ancestral production were affected by luck as well as ability, which produces variance over time even within the same domain.”

Warmth, on the other hand, tends toward stability over time within a given relationship. “The nature of relationships is typically stable across long time spans.” Someone who helps you in situation A is also likely to help you in situation B. Competence in area A, however, does not predict competence in area B. This means that within a relationship, competence may vary while warmth is likely to remain stable and is again, therefore, more important to get right.

In sum

Research suggests that in evaluating potential cooperative partners, we tend to care more about how the other person intends to treat us than about their ability to carry out their intentions. It appears that we are prone to do so because, in our ancestral environment, warmth varied more than competence in potential partners while varying less within a given cooperative relationship.

An interesting question, yet to be answered by research, is whether the same calculus makes sense today. In our complex technological world, differences in competence may be just as large and consequential as differences in warmth within a population of potential partners, and perhaps as enduring and generalizable within a given relationship. Patently privileging warmth may prove problematic under these conditions. Is it time to recalibrate our assessments? Science is on the case....