By Rob Capps|wired science |November 20, 2012
A strong handshake and assertive greeting may not be the best way to make a good
first impression. New research suggests that people respond more positively to
someone who comes across as trustworthy rather than confident.
Social psychologist Amy Cuddy of Harvard Business School is studying how we evaluate people we meet. Cuddy is known for her research on power posing, which she presented last year at TedGlobal and the annual PopTech conference in Maine. This research suggests that if you strike a strong pose — where you take up as much space as possible — your levels of testosterone rise, while cortisol levels drop. The result: If you do it for two minutes before going into a job interview or other public performance, you will have more confidence and perform better.
Cuddy returned to PopTech this year with an all-new talk about how we form first impressions. Turns out that when we meet individuals or groups for the first time, we mostly evaluate two metrics: trustworthiness and confidence. And the best part is that once you understand this, you can learn to make a better first impression. We asked her to tell us how this all works.
Wired: What have you learned about how we form first impressions?
Amy Cuddy: When we form a first impression of another person it’s not really a single impression. We’re really forming two. We’re judging how warm and trustworthy the person is, and that’s trying to answer the question, “What are this person’s intentions toward me?” And we’re also asking ourselves, “How strong and competent is this person?” That’s really about whether or not they’re capable of enacting their intentions. Research shows that these two trait dimensions account for 80 to 90 percent of an overall first impression, and that holds true across cultures.
Wired: Why did you get into this line of research?
Cuddy: Since just after World War II, social psychologists have been studying prejudice, really trying to understand what drives it. And the classic social-psychological model was that it’s all about love for the “in-group” and hatred for the “out-group.” The problem with this is that it assumed there’s a single evaluative dimension: You either have negative or positive feelings toward a person or group. And because that’s not really what’s happening, social psychologists were not able to use the in-group/out-group evaluation to predict discrimination. Ultimately, what we really want to know isn’t just what you think and feel about somebody but also how do you treat them. We didn’t know who was going to be a target of genocide, who was going to be neglected, who was going to be mocked.
Discrimination comes in very nuanced forms these days. And we wanted to be able to predict discrimination. Our research group was interested in how people categorize each other. When we meet somebody, what determines whether we see them as a member of a group or see them as an individual? And how do we determine if we like the other person or not? Through research we found that it really comes down to two traits: trustworthiness and competence. People universally sort groups in a two by two matrix. And what you end up getting is that most groups are seen as high on one trait and low on the other. You don’t actually have many groups that are both not trusted and not respected, or that are both loved and respected.
Wired: How did you determine all this?
Cuddy: We would literally just go into a society and do a preliminary study asking people to freely list all the groups in their society. After going into about two-dozen different cultures we found that people tended to come up with about 15 to 20 groups in their society. Some of them are overlapping, so you have women and men, but then you also have race, and you’ve got profession and religion and all these other categories. Then we go in again and ask a different sample of people to rate all those groups on a long list of traits. Through factor analysis we were able to show that people assess groups largely by these two main factors. Now, when you ask people “how much do you like a given group?” often they’re not going to tell you the truth. There’s too many social desirability concerns. But when you give them, say, 20 traits to evaluate, they’re much more willing to actually give you variance in the responses.
Wired: And you can somehow use this to predict who is at risk of genocide?
Cuddy: When the economy or the status quo is threatened, often it is the high-status minority groups that get targeted for genocide. If you look over the last 100 years at the groups that have been the targets, they are not groups that were seen as incompetent. They’re groups that were seen as highly competent. So the Tutsis in Rwanda, the Jews in Germany, educated people in Cambodia. These aren’t groups that were both not liked and not respected. They were groups that were hated but respected. That is the quadrant that gets targeted for genocide. Again this goes against the former popular thinking in social psychology, that it was just a mater of one group hating another.
Wired: What else do these two traits tell you about how one group views another?
Cuddy: The thing we found after sorting people into these four quadrants is that they predict four unique emotions and four unique behavioral responses. So groups that are seen as competent but disliked elicit a lot of respect and admiration but also a lot of resentment and antipathy. Groups that are seen as warm and trustworthy but incompetent illicit pity, which is about both compassion and sadness.
Wired: What if you see a group as warm and competent.
Cuddy: You think they’re just great all around. But this is rare, as is viewing someone as both cold and incompetent. We usually see one trait or the other.
Wired: At Poptech you also talked about how these reactions occur on a personal level. You mentioned that when we first meet someone we’re often looking for warmth or trust, but trying to project competence and confidence.
Cuddy: We want to see others as trustworthy but we want them to see us as competent or strong.
Wired: So knowing this when you’re going into interactions with people, can you use this knowledge to better make and give first impressions?
Cuddy: To make an accurate judgment of somebody, you want to bring out their true nature. People need to trust you in order to be themselves. So trying to be the more dominant one in the interaction is probably going to make it harder for you to get accurate information about the other person, because it’s going to shut them down. Or they’re going to feel defensive, or they’re going to feel threatened, or they’re going to try to out alpha you. It’s not going to be any sort of natural interaction. So I’m such a big believer in trying to establish trust, and there’s evidence that shows that trust begets trust. I know people find this very controversial but it’s true. If you are trusting, if you project trust, people are more likely to trust you.
Wired: How do you convey trust in a first interaction?
Cuddy: There are a lot of things that you can do. One is to let the other person speak first or have the floor first. You can do this by simply asking them a question. I think people make the mistake, especially in business settings, of thinking that everything is negotiation. They think, “I better get the floor first so that I can be in charge of what happens.” The problem with this is that you don’t make the other person feel warmth toward you. Warmth is really about making the other person feel understood. They want to know that you understand them. And doing that is incredibly disarming.
You can also establish trust by collecting information about the other person’s interests — get them to share things about themselves. Just making small talk helps enormously. Research proves that five minutes of chit-chat before a negotiation increases the amount of value that’s created in the negotiation. What’s funny about all this is that the things that you do to increase trust actually often are things that are seen as wastes of time. People say, “Oh, I don’t have time for small talk.” Well, you should make the time for small talk because it will really help.
Wired: But are there times when it’s better to project dominance and competence?
Cuddy: I’m sure there are, but it’s an empirical question and I’m not ready to answer it yet. We’re doing some work on that now. We’ll see. But in general I really think people make the mistake of over-weighting the importance of expressing strength and competence, at the expense of expressing warmth and trustworthiness. I think this is a mistake. How can you possibly be a good leader if the people who are supposed to be following you don’t feel that you understand them? How is it possible? No one is going to listen if they don’t trust you. Why would they? Why should they? Trust opens them up to what you have to say. It opens them up to your strength and confidence. Trust is the conduit through which ideas travel.
Can you rule through fear? Of course you can. But not for long.