Social Judgment: Warmth and Competence are Universal Dimensions

What best predicts these unique patterns of  discrimination? Or put simply, what causes people to treat harshly members of another social group that seems to differ from theirs? Emotions drive  discrimination. The  stereotypes represent  warmth andcompetence, but the  stereotypes elicit emotional prejudices as well (e.g., envy, pity, or disgust). It is the emotions in and of themselves that direct behaviors such as  discrimination.For example, stereotyping John McCain as an older man can lead to pitying and therefore not voting for him in the US 2008 presidential election, or resenting and therefore not voting for Barack Obama because of stereotyping based on the fact that he attended elite schools. The chain, then, is  stereotypes-emotions-behaviors. 
However, the  stereotypes, emotions, and behavior themselves all reflect groups’ and individuals places’ in society. That is, when one’s ingroup goals clash with those of an  outgroup, the ingroup perceives that  outgroup as a foe—as unfriendly and untrustworthy (i.e., not warm)—but if there is no goal conflict between the ingroup and the  outgroup, the  outgroup is perceived as a friend—friendly and trustworthy (i.e., warm). The other dimension, stereotypic  competence, comes from the group’s perceived status. High-status groups are assumed to be competent, and low-status groups, not competent. People seem to endorse a meritocracy, where people get the status they deserve based on talent (Oldmeadow & Fiske, 2007).


All in all,  warmth and  competence are two fundamental human traits that remarkably determine our perception of other people. They seem to be universal in terms of stimuli, time, and culture. Back to the opening example of Obama and McCain, Obama could be seen as an elite professional (competent but cold) or as part of the American dream (both competent and warm). Likewise, McCain could be seen as a rich man (competent but cold) or as an American hero (both competent and warm). As we watch, the campaigns each seek to frame their candidate's image along these dimensions, in the desired direction, to elicit the desired emotions (pride, admiration) and behavior (active and passive help), most importantly, voting. Group-based prejudices play an important role as well, because  stereotypes typically appear high on one dimension and low on the other; the ensuing ambivalent affect and volatile behavior potentially endanger constructive intergroup relations. Whether we’re talking candidates, neighbors, or societal groups, our  warmth and  competence perceptions will drive our collective and individual futures.



Abele, A.E. (2003). The dynamics of masculine–agentic and feminine– communal traits: findings from a prospective study.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 768–776.

Cuddy, A. J. C., Fiske, S. T., & Glick, P. (2007). The BIAS map: Behaviors from intergroup affect and stereotypes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 631-648.

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