Social Judgment: Warmth and Competence are Universal Dimensions

One immediate question would be: Which dimension comes first when we judge another person? Maybe you guessed it: warmth is the correct answer (Peeters, 2002). Intuitively, we know that someone intending good or ill toward others is more important than the ability to act on that intention. Knowledge of warm or cold intent is more familiar to us, more sought by us, more helpful in predicting others' behavior, and more considered when evaluating others. In one experiment on how rapidly people evaluate  warmth and  competence in others, people perceive someone's  warmth more quickly than  competence, and they do so in a fraction of a second (Willis & Todorov, 2006). 

Of course, people and situations make a difference. Women and people from so-called collectivist cultures (e.g., China or Japan) are even more sensitive to  warmth than  competence (Abele, 2003). What’s more, some situations may lead us to attend especially to others’  warmth than their skills—or vice versa. Given a specific context, people may understand some social behaviors either in terms of  warmth or  competence (e.g., rushing out of a meeting could be interpreted either as helping a colleague or abandoning a meeting). Contexts also may be viewed from one’s own or others’ perspectives, and this too matters (Wojciszke, 1994). When actions are framed from one’s own perspective, undergraduates interpret them in terms ofcompetence, and when the same actions are framed from an other’s perspective, these undergraduates make sense of the other based on the  warmth dimension. Specifically, in this study participants were asked to assume playing the role of either an actor or observer and subsequently received descriptions of a series of actions. The actions could be interpreted both as competent and moral. For example, they read that an employee ingratiated herself with her boss but did it in such an obvious way that it angered the boss. Then participants were to judge this action from the employee (the actor) or the boss (the observer) and to write down why they judged the way they did. The results indicated that when participants were playing the role of an actor, they tended to focus on  warmth, and when they were playing the role of an observer, the  competence information was more salient to them.

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